Nowhere in Africa (unrated) is a German film that won this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It was little seen prior to the awards ceremony, but is now playing in select art-house theaters.
The film is absorbing from start to finish, but it's not without its faults. Rather than taking the tone of a grand Swiss Family Robinson-type family adventure, Nowhere in Africa is primarily a small, psychological film, painted on a vast African canvas.
Nowhere is a majestically shot tale of a German Jewish family that flees their homeland for Africa in 1938, anticipating the Nazi horror that will soon be visited upon Jews. A lawyer in Germany, Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze) becomes a farm manager in Kenya-the only work available to him. Walter's wife Jette (Juliane Koehler) reluctantly follows her husband with their daughter Regina.
The Redlichs' comfortable, middle-class lifestyle evaporates in their new African home. Jette initially refuses to unpack their good china (shipped from Germany despite her husband's protests). She's a reluctant expatriate who cannot accept this new country as her own. Walter, more confident that their decision to leave Germany was the right one, still struggles with his new identity and responsibilities.
The story focuses most of its attention on the strain that living in Kenya puts on a marriage that is already less than solid. Walter deeply loves his wife, and initially Jette is painted as cold and unfeeling, unable to respect her husband once stripped of his social status. But Walter, too, struggles to earn that respect, fumbling through his responsibility to lead his family.
Yet many of the film's most fascinating themes are only barely explored. The Redlichs are nonreligious Jews, driven from a homeland that more powerfully forms their identities than does their ethnicity. Yet very few scenes deal with either this painful irony or their only hinted-at spiritual struggles. The film is also burdened by two very European explicit sex scenes between Jette and Walter, whose relationship is measured by their compatibility in the bedroom.
Regina's character is perhaps the most interesting. She adapts quickly to both the land and the people of Kenya, striking up a close and sometimes moving friendship with the family's cook. Her assimilation is almost too easy, in fact, as she na•vely accepts the customs and religions of the friendly Kenyans. Like Walter and Jette, however, Nowhere in Africa never lets the audience get too far under her skin.