In over their heads on the African savannah, Jettel (Juliane Köhler) and Walter (Merab Ninidze) are the kind of oblivious bourgeoisie to whom Evelyn Waugh would give a savage schooling. Caroline Link's film Nowhere in Africa proves far more sympathetic, placing the intimate tensions of a troubled marriage against an unspoiled, panoramic landscape.
Based on Stefanie Zweig's autobiographical novel, Nowhere in Africa unfolds in large part from the perspective of the Redlichs' daughter Regina (Lea Kurka), who is 5 years old when she and Jettel leave Germany. Regina's youth allows her to adjust to the dislocations far more easily than Jettel does. The little girl takes it in stride when the crowded Nairobi train platform includes black men naked to the waist, while Jettel tries to contain her shock.
When they arrive at their new home, Regina gets lifted from the car by Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), a tall, serene African who calls her "little memsaab." Onyulo's performance makes Owuor the film's most memorable character. As the family's cook and all-around lifeguard, he's loyal and loving without being servile or a cliched "noble native." Walter, a lawyer turned farm manager, even gives Owuor his jurist robes in gratitude for nursing him through a bout of malaria.
Link emphasizes the farm's remote beauty with fluid helicopter shots, but conditions in Europe are never far from the Redlichs' minds. A letter about the increasing difficulties of Jews in Europe arrives to coincide with an African brush fire -- a miniature, literal holocaust that echoes the one in their homeland. Jettel takes some of her frustrations out on Owuor until Walter acidly points out that her treatment of the cook isn't that different from how the Germans regard the Jews. It's a powerful parallel, yet the film's subsequent speeches about how "differences are good" lack the same subtlety.
Nowhere in Africa explores the Catch-22s of the refuge experience. When Germany and England declare war, British-controlled Kenya rounds up all German nationals -- even the Jewish ones -- as potential threats to security. Walter gets detained in a prison camp, but Jettel and Regina get put up, along with the other wives and children, in a posh African hotel. As seen through Kurka's expressive eyes, the hotel sequence and many other moments are pleasingly reminiscent of Hope and Glory, John Boorman's nostalgic remembrance of London during the Blitz.
The Redlichs' greatest challenge is knowing who to trust. Are the African workers undermining their European employers? Should Jettel turn to Kenya's Jews or a seductive British officer to help secure Walter's release from imprisonment? When Regina goes off to an English-controlled boarding school, she's entirely unsure if her classmates and teachers are charitable or bigoted.
Rather than rely on each other through the difficulties, Jettel and Walter see tensions flare between them. In one scene Walter flirtingly encourages Jettel to go topless like a native woman, but when she boldly agrees, he reacts with jealous suspicion. Köhler and Ninidze so expertly convey the couple's marital "baggage," we suspect they'd have the same problems no matter where they lived.
The film's 140 minutes span the years 1937 to 1947, but it leaves some gaps in the narrative. In the third act, Regina grows up to be a comely teenager (Karoline Eckertz) whom we never get to know very well. She seems sexually attracted to an African boy her age and shows a habit of spending nights in the beds of others, but the film rather naively suggests that all she's doing is sleeping.
Nowhere in Africa vividly captures the customs of African life, from fireside dances to the emergency procedures for resisting swarms of locusts. Yet the film's most compelling aspect is the way it demonstrates how timeless forces, from the flow of history to the character of a continent, can shape something as fragile yet as powerful as a marriage.