While The Pianist has received Academy Awards acclaim for Best Actor as well as Best Director, it pictured a first-person account of brutality and destruction of a man, his family, and those trapped in the Warsaw ghetto. In Nowhere in Africa, Frankfurt, Germany in 1938 continues to provide the illusion that Germans were too urbane to do what we all know they did.
“‘Nowhere in Africa’ may seem to leave you in the middle of nowhere, but takes you somewhere you will never forget. Go see it.”
Neighbors transformed into ogres with pretty faces as Jews became a vilified class of subhumans. Stefanie Zweig's memoir of her childhood and her family's story has been brought skillfully to the screen by Christine Link's magnificent movie.
The panoramic vistas of the African plain with exotic trees and scorched red earth contrast to whitened snowy fields with sleigh rides, and middle-class apartments with denizens dressed in the latest and smartest fashions, smoking and drinking and conversing as if everything was wunderbar.
But the narration is that of a wise child who remembers well. And that child, Regina (RAH-ghee-nah) is a very special little girl, who will warm even the coldest of hearts.
Jettel Redlich (Juliane Kohler) is enjoying an early winter life in pre-war Frankfurt. Her practical husband, Walter (Merab Ninidze), an attorney, who had already lost his privilege to practice law in German courts because he was a Jew, has left. In Kenya he suffers with malaria.
Although the British landowner tends to him and offers quinine and coffee, it is the local Kenyan, the hired chef, Owour (Sidede Onyulo) who nurses him back to health.
Grateful and humble, Redlich tries to reward Owour with his legal robes, now worthless in the backcountry. He struggles to learn Swahili and tries to scrape out a place in this strange land.
In the vicinity of Frankfurt are upper middle class, bourgeois German Jews, tightly assimilated as Germans and not very religious, who enjoy sumptuous parties while their formerly friendly neighbors contemptuously tell their impressionable children not to speak to them.
Walter writes his wife urging her to book passage for her and Regina, and to bring books and a refrigerator. The richness and comfort of family, safe, warm and secure with the ominous clouds of unspeakable hate and doom dawning on the staircase in the hearts and minds of former benign neighbors has fluency that the gross brutality and destructive horror depicted in The Pianist and other films misses.
Initially Jettel assumes their sojourn will be brief and therefore no need to adjust to life in Kenya. Ironically for a forced ©migr©, she demands that Owour not speak Swahili to her and that he should learn German when addressing her.
She directs Regina to stay separate from the black children—our assimilated German Jew forgets how it felt to be segregated and ostracized, and imposes a class and caste system with the same unreasonable vehemence as her own German oppressors. She childishly demands meat when there is nothing but eggs and grain.
Walter works to become a decent farmer. He learns to shoot a gun to kill wild game for meat for his demanding wife, and encourages his daughter by reading Goethe and Schiller, and watches her learn Owour's language and tries to learn it himself.
Jettel has no respect for local custom or tradition. We are immersed in a human struggle to adapt to rude and unfamiliar traditions, and Jettel can identify what others need to do to maintain her sense of comfort and culture.
The invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, brings the mainland European war to the British colony in Kenya. The expatriate Jews are rounded up and interned as if they were accomplices to the Nazis and a threat to the British Empire. For Walter, prison camp is no harder than farming.
Jettel and Regina's internment unexpectedly produces luxurious quarters and food at a hotel unwilling to compromise standards even for refugees and prisoners. Walter loses his job and income, which causes Jettel to beg for mercy from the local British Jewish community, and later makes a bargain to get a new job as a tenant farmer for Walter.
With life steadily deteriorating for all of the Jews remaining in Europe, her demands seem petty to the more comfortable and powerful British Kenyan Jews and indeed impertinent in comparison to those struggling to save lives and get people out of the Nazi clutches.
Walter enters the British army; Jettel takes over the chores on the farm with the help of Susskind, the lonely swarthy fellow Jew, who has become an extension of family. The marital and personal struggles of Jettel and Walter and how they intertwine with their struggle to re-define themselves and their marriage are a focal point of the movie.
Regina emerges as the strongest, wisest, and most sympathetic character. Walter and Jettel have cultural and familial anchors that base their principled stands. She is sent to a thoroughly British boarding school.
The stern headmaster demands that the Jewish children vacate the chairs in the assembly hall so that the Christians can pray the Lord's Prayer. He pronounces her name in the British way (Ra-JEE-nah) and cannot hide his brute anti-Semitism. Regina adapts and integrates cultural opportunities more readily and survives more successfully and less stubbornly and selfishly.
Sweepingly Beautiful Cinematography
The cinematography is sweepingly beautiful; the vista of Africa is stunning and awesome.
The contrasts are stark: the persistence of culture black and white, Christian, Jewish, and native African ritual, but they swirl together in a m©lange of values from which one can easily still see the true colors of good and evil without melodrama or crushing voice from the narrator—you see it and you choose, and you can discern utter verities from abject falsehood.
The resolution of whether Germany is worth returning to may have elements of the writer's parents choice: Is it better to salvage the wrecked culture you feel so much a part of its past, or do you accept always being a foreigner and looked at as a colonialist?
The emotional tie to those who mattered at life's darkest hours and the loyalty that transcends culture are the truest virtue emerging from this movie.
Owour returns Walter's legal robes to him before he returns to his life and his wives. It is not the incredible hardships and tragedy that the human spirit endures that is the most uplifting, it is the unexpected kindnesses from strangers and those you just do not expect that is the beacon of hope for the future.
And it is the children who see what parents are too blind to see or too consumed with their own sadness or transient problems. It is the children's vision that promises to make the next generation more hopeful.
This movie celebrates survivorship and human values, and wins over your heart and mind without an explosive or single bullet fired.
The movie may seem to leave you in the middle of nowhere, but takes you somewhere you will never forget. Go see it.© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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