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Nowhere in Africa
Reviewed by Dennis Morton

It’s not uncommon for film reviewers to see a movie several times before they write about it. I’ve seen Nowhere In Africa twice, and I’m glad I did, because I liked it much better the second time around.

Most of us haven’t the opportunity to see a movie twice, and some would argue that if the filmmaker can’t get the job done with that in mind, the film is a failure. But sometimes the fault can lie with the viewer. I had several nagging questions after my first viewing. Had I been a sharper observer, those questions would not have surfaced.

Nowhere In Africa, notwithstanding its extraordinary geographical and historical background, is essentially the story of a small family. The story is narrated by Regina, daughter of Walter & Jettel, and reconstructed from Regina’s memory.

The movie opens with a voiceover by Regina and a series of recollections. The time is January, 1938. The place is Germany. The protagonists are Jews. A family gathering is interrupted by the arrival of a letter. It’s from Walter. He’s found work on a farm in Kenya. Jettel and Regina are to pack their belongings and join him in Africa, immediately. It’s obvious that Jettel is conflicted. Had I paid closer attention to a conversation between Walter’s father and Jettel, I might have been less conflicted myself. I might have perceived the understated psychology of Jettel and Walter’s relationship.

So keep your ears tuned for the goodbye conversation between Jettel and her father-in-law.
The movie next shifts to Africa. Walter, with the help of another expatriate and his African cook, is recovering from a bout with malaria. He’s back on his feet just in time for the arrival of his wife and daughter. They attempt to settle into their new lives.

Regina takes to the beautiful African countryside immediately, and especially to the lanky cook. From the beginning, theirs is a beautiful friendship. Jettel has a more difficult time. She misses her family in Germany and the privileged lifestyle her husband’s status had afforded her. It seems not to have occurred to her that Walter’s prescience has saved their lives.
Periodically, letters arrive, and each brings bad news. Jettel’s response is to withdraw
further and further from her husband’s ardor. Slowly and quietly director Caroline Link
tracks the arc of the trio’s individual lives. That this domestic drama unfolds in the shadow of Mount Kenya and the distant but ever present horror of the Holocaust seems, much of the time, almost immaterial to Jettel. And Regina is too young to understand her parents’ behavior. Only Walter grasps the larger picture. And for all his good intent, he’s a rather feckless fellow.

In the background, countless autochthonous Kenyans scratch a living from the land. Politically they’re under the yoke of British occupation. But the director’s empathy for their status is evident. Nowhere In Africa is based on an autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig, who, in the film, is Regina. Gaps in the narrative reflect the fickleness of memory, and seen in that light, didn’t bother me. Link’s pacing is slow, perhaps too slow for some. But I enjoyed the movie. It won an Oscar for best foreign picture at this year’s Academy Awards. I don’t buy that. In my book, Almodovar’s Talk To Her is a work of genius and was easily the best film of the year, foreign or domestic. Typically, Talk To Her wasn’t even nominated. Nevertheless, Nowhere In Africa deserves an audience. It’s a well made and humane film, far better than the average Hollywood treacle.

It’s fun to speculate about the meaning of the title. I think it’s a response to a question central to the film and perhaps to Jews in general. I’d like to know what you think.

For KUSP’s Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.