I tend to turn my nose up at kitschy sentimentality. It’s not that I’m incapable of feeling genuine, happy human emotion. I simply think that film-makers try to exploit easily manipulated emotions for cheap dramatic effect. One of the (many) reasons that The Tree of Life was so exceptional to me was the way its optimistic and heartfelt message never once felt artificial or forced. Whenever films come along that an incredibly sentimental and warm emotional undertone, I am immediately skeptical and cynical. So, when one of those films is actually enjoyable and genuine, it is a welcome escape from the pessimism at the heart of so much great cinema. 2001’s Nowhere in Africa won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 2002 Academy Awards (it’s weird that the tenth Oscars since then is Sunday), and while the movie is long (140 minutes) and feels even longer, it is a poignant and obviously heartfelt film with an attention to often overlooked historical detail that should be enlightening for anyone with an interest in foreign cinema and a less studied side of the Jewish WWII experience.
In 1938, after spending six months in Kenya and nearly dying of malaria, German lawyer (and Jew) Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze) is finally able to bring his wife Jettel (Julianne Kohler) and his young daughter Regina (Lea Kurke as a child and Karoline Eckertz as a teenager) to Africa in order to escape the impending persecution of the Jews in their native Germany. Making his living as a cattle farmer, Walter must struggle to acclimate his high-society wife to the realities of African living while his daughter grows up in a culture entirely different than the one where he was raised. As Regina grows up, she begins to have more in common with the African tribesmen that she befriends thanks to the family’s cook, Owour (Sidede Onyulo), than the other British and German children she meets at her school. This new homeland threatens to tear apart the marriage of Walter and Jettel and matters only become more complicated when the British government arrests every German refugee in the nation and puts them in (very posh) prison camps. When Jettel sleeps with a British soldier in order to secure her husbands release and ability to work on a British farm, their marriage is put to the test and eventually even their loyalties to their homeland over their new home in Africa becomes a problem over the 10 years that the film takes place.
We haven’t watched a German film for this blog since Werner Herzog’s Stroszek in September (which was great) unless you count the Danish (but German produced) The Monastery (which I don’t since it’s mostly a Scandinavian production). Nowhere in Africa continues the streak of nothing but top notch German films that I’ve watched on here (including Das Boot and The White Ribbon). I’m having trouble making up my mind about whether or not I think the film is way too long and just way too slow. Even if it was, it doesn’t undermine my appreciation of the film. The movies plot isn’t exactly propulsive. More often than not, it’s a study in the day-to-day life and fight for survival that the Redlich family endured when they arrived in Africa, but it’s chock full of so many interesting details and cultural tidbits that I can forgive it for inching along at its own deliberate pace. The movie feels at least an hour longer than its already lengthy running time, and while I became very attached to these characters (particularly Regina and Owour), the film took its own time to lay out the details of the complexity and competing desires of this expatriated family.
One of the most engaging aspects of the film was the way it really explored the hypocrisy of many of the refugees who emigrated to Africa and the way that they treated the African natives after they had been abused for racial reasons back in Europe. Jettel doesn’t begin the film as a very nice woman and watching her steady transformation to a woman that loves Africa and doesn’t want to leave its people was one of the most rewarding aspects of the film. Unlike so many films that deal with hot button issues like race and especially the Holocaust, this movie doesn’t find one race miraculously saving a downtrodden other race, but instead finds two people who have experienced exploitation and destruction finding their grace in each other. At no point did I find this film to be either condescending to the Jews (it’s based off an autobiographical novel of the same) or the Africans, and while each groups were show to have their own strange quirks, watching Regina become the primary link between the African tribal culture of Owour and the European genteelness of her family was fascinating. Similarly, Regina’s coming of age was the emotional tie that kept this film from ever becoming too slow as seeing her grow up was always interesting.
Still, despite all my praise for the film, it’s a serious problem when I’ve thought nearly two hours has passed and the movie’s only been on for a little over one. The movie’s languid pace will be too much for some, although for anyone with an interest in emotionally uplifting cinema with a veracity that is far too rare in today’s market, Nowhere in Africa is a delight. The film could have left around 30 minutes or so on the cutting room floor, but even its seemingly endless running time shouldn’t ward you away because at least this excessive attention to detail gives the movie a lived in and authentic quality that is its primary selling point. Whenever I think of the great nations for foreign cinema, Germany is never the first nation to spring to mind, but Nowhere in Africa is just another example from this blog of Germany being one of the most under-appreciated outlets of foreign films. For all students of foreign cinema, this is another movie to add to your list.
Final Score: B+