Writer-director Caroline Link’s sympathetic observation of young people and adults finds its biggest stage to date in “Nowhere in Africa,” a nicely lensed period tale set amid the sun-burned plains of Kenya during WWII. This adaptation of Stefanie Zweig’s bestselling autobiographical novel, based on her family’s self-exile to escape Nazi persecution of the Jews, is more a compendium of small details and incidents than a vast, epic drama, but remains easy on the eye and effortlessly entertaining across almost 2½ hours. Released locally in late December, pic has so far racked up a healthy 800,000 admissions in Germany and, on the strength of Link’s name (the Oscar-nommed “Beyond Silence,” plus “Annaluise and Anton”), should easily find initial berths offshore in festivals and Teuton film showcases.
From the outset, as it crosscuts between Germany and Africa during the main titles, with a voiceover by the central character, Regina, the film signals that it’s not so much about the well-ploughed subject of Jewish persecution as about a family torn from its roots and a young girl growing up in a Nowhereland devoid of cultural references.
The father, lawyer Walter Redlich (Georgian actor Merab Ninidze, from “Luna Papa”), is already in Kenya, trying to make a go of it as a farm manager. And in the middle of a party at the family’s well-to-do home in Breslau, in January ’38, his wife, Jettel (Juliane Koehler, from “Aimee & Jaguar”), receives a letter urging her and Regina (newcomer Lea Kurka) to join him. Her aged father-in-law, Max (Gerd Heinz) and sister, Kaethe (Regine Zimmermann), stay behind.
As the movie shuttles between Jettel saying her good-byes and Walter recovering from an illness in the care of his Kenyan cook Owuor (Sidede Onyulo) and veteran Africa hand Suesskind (Matthias Habich), there’s a real cinematic sweep to the widescreen lensing by Gernot Roll and symphonic score by Niki Reiser. Like young Regina herself, as she travels to Nairobi and then into the wilderness, the viewer is swept off to an environment far from the darkness and claustrophobia of strife-torn Europe. Regina’s sense of wonder is encapsulated in a brief slo-mo, as she’s welcomed by Owuor and feels his unfamiliar skin and embrace.
A wealth of small detail sketches the family’s new life in a new land: Jettel unpacking her glassware and crockery for what she thinks will only be a short stay; English attitudes to the newcomers in what was then a British colony (“bloody refugees”); and marital tensions between Walter and Jettel as she resents being separated from her family and having to do physical work.
Six months later, the marital tensions are still there, but Regina has become fascinated by native life. Then, as Britain officially declares war on Germany, the family is interned — Walter in a camp and, in a humorous development, Jettel and Regina along with other women in a swank hotel.
With the help of a sympathetic, German-speaking British soldier, with whom she goes to bed, Jettel manages to get Walter a post of managing a farm, and Regina enters a British school. After the war ends, Walter is offered a job as a judge in Frankfurt, and his decision whether to return to Germany causes more strife, especially as Regina (now played by Karoline Eckertz as a young teen) has become totally adapted to Kenyan life.
Anyone expecting a kind of Teutonic “Out of Africa” is going to disappointed: despite the pic’s initial sweep, once it settles down in Africa the movie remains firmly focused on the family and their sense of estrangement from the Heimat (homeland). List scales back his score, and Roll’s photography remains always well-composed but not sumptuous, portraying Africa as a real place to live in rather than an exotic theme park.
Most important, Link shows little interest in making a sweeping melodrama: Jettel’s sexual surrender to the British officer is treated unsentimentally, and overall the movie has a pragmatic, focused feel that drives the story forward, making the long running time easy to get through. Final reel is moving in a simple, nuts-and-bolts way.
Koehler, a legit-trained actress who was the best thing in “Aimee & Jaguar,” is extremely good as Jettel, a rather spoiled but tough bourgeoisie whose driving force remains hearth and home. Ninidze is fine as her husband, though their dialogue is sometimes too arch and issue-driven to convey the couple’s attraction. Habich effortlessly incarnates a grizzled African veteran, and both Kurka and Eckertz are first-rate as Regina.
Both production design and costuming in the $6.5 million pic have a lived-in look, and a smattering of veteran British thesps contribute natural perfs — including Anthony Bate as a school principal, and (Berlin-born) Andrew Sachs and (Kenyan-raised) Diane Keen as an ambassador and his wife.