Last Sunday, as I watched the nice German drama Nowhere in Africa (Zeitgeist) win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, I could imagine Spike Lee saying, “Wouldn’t you know it? First movie set in Africa to win an Oscar in years and it’s about Jews in Africa.” Now, if he did say that—and I might be off-base; for all I know he said, “How great to see a movie about Jews in Africa win an Academy Award!”—he’d have a legitimate beef. But the movie is fascinating, too, as Driving Miss Daisy (1989) was, for what it says about the liberal Jewish longing to bond, retroactively, with the black “help”: to say, “We might have been higher up the social and economic ladder than you were—we might even have found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of exploiting you. But we were big-time victims ourselves.” In its picturesque, genteel, unforced way, Nowhere in Africa makes the case for respect and harmony across this scary racial chasm.
Directed by Caroline Link, the movie is based on a novel—a thinly veiled memoir—by Stefanie Zweig about fleeing Germany, “the land of Goethe and Schiller,” for Kenya in 1938, just before the Jews were herded into ghettos and systematically exterminated. The Redlich family is upper-middle class, with no strong ties to its Orthodox Jewish heritage; but Walter (Merab Ninidze), a hotshot lawyer, astutely senses that his people’s future in Germany is nonexistent. Before the film even opens he has traveled to Kenya and obtained a job as the overseer (“bwana” to his African workers) of a cattle ranch in the dusty heartland. After surviving malaria with the help of the tall, serene cook and handyman Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), he sends for his beautiful trophy wife, Jettel (Juliane Köhler), and 5-year-old daughter Regina (Lea Kurka), who manage to get out of their country before the borders are definitively slammed shut.
As in the book, much of the action is viewed through the eyes of Regina, who adapts—as children will—to her new land with alacrity, promptly throwing her arms around Owuor and inhaling his aromas as if she were his long-lost child. Her mother doesn’t have such an easy time of it. Asked by her husband to bring a refrigerator with her, Jettel spends her limited financial resources on an evening gown instead. (I’m still not clear how in 1938 she could have packed a refrigerator in her suitcase, but maybe something was lost in translation.) Jettel doesn’t like Kenya, doesn’t understand what they’re doing in such a hard, cultureless place instead of the land of Goethe and Schiller. When she asks Owuor to carry her heavy jugs of water (it’s a woman’s job in Kenya), she finds herself mocked by a chorus of clucking Kenyan females. Disgusted by her fall in status, the parched landscape, and a steady diet of eggs and cornmeal, Jettel stops having sex with her husband. No Goethe, Schiller, or sex: Life for Walter has few rewards. But at least the Redlichs aren’t in a cattle car bound for Poland.
The pacing of Nowhere in Africa is a mite drowsy, but there are payoffs for the director’s uninsistent touch. Apart from Owuor, who has a happy, affectionate relationship with the Redlichs and a lyrical rapport with little Regina, the Africans regard the Germans with a mixture of amusement and resentment that’s more interesting for what doesn’t get said. The family’s sense of dislocation is palpable. When war breaks out in Europe and the British—still ruling Kenya—round up the German expats and put them in camps in Nairobi, the irony of locking up the Jews (who have no loyalty to Hitler) alongside other “enemy aliens” is bitterly conclusive: There is simply no way these people can win. But there’s another irony. For Jettel and Regina it’s the plushest “prison” imaginable—a luxury hotel in which they laze around the verdant grounds while white-coated Kenyans serve them lemonade.
What gives Nowhere in Africa an unsentimental edge is that Jettel and Walter don’t like each other all that much, in bed or out of it. When a British officer proposes helping the family relocate to a farm in the country in return for Jettel’s sexual favors, she acquiesces readily; and she seems to prefer the company of a German pal named Süsskind (Matthias Habich) to her husband. The movie is finally about the couple’s estrangement: how this spoiled woman gradually finds an accord with the African workers while her husband goes off to join the Allied army. After Jettel learns that her extended family has perished in the Holocaust, she and Regina come to feel at home in Kenya while Walter longs to return to Germany—and, one presumes, to his former status, both sexual and social.
The movie isn’t boring, but it’s shapeless, more like a memoir than a novel, and threads are left dangling—as if it was meant to be four hours instead of 140 minutes. Link hints at an attraction between Regina and an African boy, but despite teasing hints (the girl slips out of the family’s house and spends nights with the boy’s family), it doesn’t come to anything. Two-thirds of the way through, after Regina goes off to an English private school in Nairobi, she returns, hugs Owuor, and turns into an older, less expressive actress. The film never quite gets over the loss of young Lea Kurka, whose relationship with the rangy, generous Sidede Onyulo keeps it anchored. This is a resonant setting for a movie, but there’s something too refined and emotionally neutral about Nowhere in Africa, as if Link had directed with white gloves. Maybe she knew how loaded this African-Jewish subject was and didn’t want it push it too hard. Maybe that’s why she won an Oscar.