Feb 18, 2015

Review: Nirgendwo in Afrika [Nowhere in Africa] (2001)

I'll admit, I was a bit put off by the prospect of watching Nowhere in Africa. It's a foreign language film which would require me to read subtitles, it's long at 141 minutes and it's about some pretty serious stuff. There's nothing wrong with that, but I'm sure everyone knows the feeling of being faced with a big task at hand that requires real commitment. When you're a bit on the tired side it can be a bit more of a challenge no?

Anyhow, Nowhere in Africa does have some pretty good credentials though. Written and directed by German native Caroline Link, it's all about a Jewish family's escape to Africa before World War II. The story is in fact based on Stefanie Zweig's autobiographic novel of the same name. NiA managed to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2002 as well as the top prize at the Deutscher Filmpreis among other awards. Not too shabby at all.


Genre: biography, drama
Directed by: Caroline Link
Produced by: Peter Herrmann, Andreas Bareiß, Sven Ebeling, etc.
Written by: Caroline Link
Music by: Niki Reiser
Running time: 141 minutes
Production company: BKM, Bavaria Film, Bavaria Filmverleih- und Produktions GmbH, etc.
Distributed by: Constantin Film, Zeitgeist Films, Optimum Releasing, etc.
Country: Germany
Language: German, Swahili, English
Budget: €7,000,000
Box office: $24,352,725 (Worldwide)

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: Juliane Köhler, Merab Ninidze, Sidede Onyulo, Matthias Habich, Lea Kurka, Karoline Eckertz, Gerd Heinz, Hildegard Schmahl, Maritta Horwarth, Regine Zimmermann, Gabrielle Odinis



It's 1938 and Germany is becoming more dangerous for Jews by the day. The patriarch of the Redlich family has in fact already left the country to find a new home and has made the decision to settle in Kenya, Africa. Walter (Merab Ninidze) has found work as the manager of a farm even though he knows pretty much nothing about farming. Eventually rejoined by his wife (Juliane Köhler) and daughter (Lea Kurka), to say that they have a lot of adapting to do would be an understatement.


The first thing I notcied about Nowhere in Africa is the amount of detail it puts in when it comes to its characters. Take Walter, who's willingness to protect his family knows no bounds. He chooses Kenya to presumably get as far away from the Germans as he can possibly get. He's willing to adjust to his new harsh surroundings and he does the best he can even if he does struggle quite a bit. I mean, do you know many lawyers who could manage a farm on the turn of a dime? His daughter Regina is the same, willing to acclimatize herself and learn the local culture.

Walter's wife Jettel is a different story on the other hand. She sees Africa as a temporary solution and can't wait for the day that she can go back to Germany. She distrusts the locals and refuses to even learn the odd word or two of Swahili which would make communicating with her family's Kenyan cook Owuor (Sidede Onyulo) a little bit easier. Jettel's refusal to learn and adapt is seen on quite a few other occasions as well, not even just with Kenyans.

Besides the great focus on characters, I absolutely loved how Nowhere in Africa painted Kenya as a country. There's a sense of mystery about it that Caroline Link doesn't ever fully reveal. It made me feel like I was part of the adventure that the Redlich family were going through as they made their way through a strange and foreign place. For example, there's a great scene where young Regina watches a goat sacrifice from a distance. The scene just does a great job at feeling as alien as it probably does for her. 

Over time though, you get to understand the beauty of the country as do the characters. The wide, open expanses of Kenyan desert are just beautiful as are the exotic, urban streets of the Nairobi marketplace. One thing's for sure, it's a big contrast from grey, cold and snowy Germany. From a visual perspective, both Caroline Link along with her cinematographer Gernot Roll succeed in making Nowhere in Africa a feast for the eyes.

There's no melodrama in Nowhere in Africa and the struggles that the characters face are real. It also helps that everyone involved turns in a strong performance. Merab Ninidze is good, but most importantly, Juliane Köhler gives a very strong performance. Her character is by far the most interesting as she's the one who goes through the most inner turmoil. Karoline Eckertz as the older Regina is also quite good.

I also have to point out just how great Sidede Onyulo is as the Redlich's cook. He's more than that though. He's pretty much a "cultural translator" if you will, there to explain how things are done and why. Onyulo's smile and laugh is infectious and he's definitely one of my favourite characters of the whole film.

To me, Nowhere in Africa is part character film and part adventure film. Caroline Link has this really interesting perspective of Kenya and I truly feel like I've gained a new appreciation for its culture and its people by watching this film. The story is sweeping, fascinating and it's very easy to fall in love with its characters. All I can say is that I'm glad I ended up watching it because it's not a movie to be missed.



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