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Exquisite Exile

A review of Nowhere in Africa

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*Nowhere in Africa (R)
Zeitgeist Films

Winner of this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, director-screenwriter Caroline Link's Nowhere in Africa is a story of exile, class, race, modern history and family struggle writ large. A screen adaptation of journalist Stefanie Zweig's family memoir of fleeing Nazi Germany and relocating to Kenya in the late 1930s, the film elegantly visits scenes of memory, drawing the viewer in with stellar cinematography, an exquisite musical score and subtle, powerful acting.

In 1937 Germany, the Redlich family enjoy the trappings of upper-class city life -- parties, good wine and music, culture and education -- surrounded by their extended family. Patriarch Walter (Merab Ninidze), an attorney with an apparent prescient notion of the extremes of anti-Semitism soon to ravage his homeland, flees to a farm in Kenya and waits for his family to join him. Wife Jettel (Juliane Khler), reluctant to leave her mother and sister and the comforts of urban life, reluctantly packs up daughter Regina (Lea Kurka) and the good china, but not before stopping to buy an evening gown instead of the icebox her husband has requested she bring to Africa. A long journey ensues while Walter in Kenya, meanwhile, sweats through a siege of malaria, aided by a Masai servant, Uwuor (Sidede Onyulo), who will become the family's beloved cook.

Kenya is in the middle of a severe drought, and Jettel and Regina arrive to find starkly beautiful but desolate surroundings. "One cannot really live here," says Jettel dismissively, refusing to recognize her husband's resolve to see the Nazi years through on this piece of foreign land. Marital troubles follow for Jettel and Walter, but young Regina warms to the charms of the veld and to the native Pokot people who regard the foreigners with amused disdain.

Walter, meanwhile, grows increasingly dissatisfied living on the land, accustomed as he is to "making a living with [his] head." He joins the British army (Kenya is at that time still a British colony) after the family is briefly located to a camp for "foreign enemies," which included even, absurdly, Jews like the Redlichs who have no alliance with Hitler.

Jettel is left behind to run the farm and, now aware that her family in Germany are dead, she begins to love the land and the agrarian life. Despite loneliness and isolation, she grows up beneath the challenges of exile.

Nowhere in Africa explores familiar territory, but also ventures into a few taboo corners, exposing, for instance, the inherent racial snobbery of these exiled Jews and the complications of infidelity. Uwuor, played with assurance by the dignified, striking actor Onyulo, is the film's centerpiece, an immovable pillar who quietly observes and absorbs Jettel's condescension. Lea Kurka and Karoline Eckertz, as the child Regina and the teenage Regina, respectively, are remarkably expressive in the role of the malleable youth who absorbs everything around her -- the beauty of her surroundings, the skills and traditions of the Pokot people, the unwavering love of Uwuor and her parents' marital distress.

Snarky critics have dismissed Nowhere in Africa for meeting all the expected qualifications of an Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film -- exotic setting, expansive location shots, marital intrigue, good-natured natives and snooty foreigners, extravagant cinematic sweep and musical grandeur. All of those things are there and the filmmakers are to be congratulated for not turning them into film clichs. Nowhere in Africa is serious, visually striking and humane -- a classic. Take the opportunity to see it while it's here; the effect just won't be the same on videotape.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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