The opening sections of this year's Best Foreign Film Academy Award-winner, Nowhere in Africa, have a narrative bustle that quickens the pulse and keeps ears perked and eyes peeled.
Writer-director Caroline Link cuts between a Jewish attorney named Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze) farming in Africa and his wife Jettel (Juliane Kohler) and daughter Regina (Keroline Eckertz) leading an endangered haute-bourgeois life in Hitler's Germany. The juxtaposition of harsh rural beauty and cushy urbanity expresses with a distinctive dizziness their rarefied kind of Holocaust dislocation. The movie is about coddled middle-class people finding themselves lost without familiar institutions. What gives the movie such strength is its depiction of an elemental way of life exposing the softness of "civilized" relationships.
Even after the movie's energy dissipates and its narrative begins to wander, Link's adaptation of Stefanie Zweig's autobiographical novel is bracingly exotic. The British-controlled Kenya of this movie, a magnificent land with a proud, mystical people, is never too easy to know -- it forces Europeans to face themselves and forge new destinies. And as members of the Redlich family test the limits of their previous identities and allegiances, the movie turns into a passage to Africa with the same double meaning as E.M. Forster's A Passage to India: Each character takes off on a spiritual journey.
For the husband, a former attorney who can't cut it as a bwana running a farm and joins the British army, the exile is an odyssey, a protracted trip toward self-knowledge; it leads him to understand the depth of his bonds with Germany and jurisprudence. But maintaining a farm in his absence (and negotiating the family's survival) is precisely what jolts his beautiful, restive wife out of her spoiled reflexes and self-absorption. Their daughter fuses European education and a nature-oriented African life with an effortlessness that's beautiful to see, thanks to her friendship with the family's native cook (the marvelously graceful Sidede Onyulo), whose mysterious serenity is the single most seductive part of Nowhere in Africa. (First the luminous Eckertz, then the more prosaic Lea Kurka play Regina.)
Where Link falters is in threading their individual trajectories with their group destiny. Ninidze and Kohler are intriguing choices to play Walter and Jettel -- Ninidze is not afraid to appear willful and weak, Kohler revels in her inchoate ambitions and uncontrollable sexual energy. When she sleeps with a British officer to win a break for her husband, she appears to enjoy it; she even flirts with Susskind, an emigre friend who's far sturdier than Walter. (Matthias Habich imbues this small part with a gnarly virility that helps root and balance the story.) But the human drama is too open-ended for its own good. The re-uniting of the family in the face of a natural calamity -- a plague of locusts -- registers as a dramatic convenience. The repeated episodes of the couple patching things up because of shared grief or burying their sorrows in lovemaking lack clarity and force.
But the movie is so rich in sidelights and color and unstressed ironies that it rewards re-viewing. The acknowledgment of British anti-Semitism and Jettel's own prejudicial conduct toward Africans, as well as the release Regina feels in her black friend's tribal customs, bring the film a complexity that happily swamps the script's explicit messages about embracing diversity and the unknown. Filmmaker Link doesn't always live up to Forster's creed, "Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted." But this picture is absorbing -- and eye-filling -- whether the prose and the passion are connecting or running on parallel tracks.
SUN SCORE: ***
Nowhere in Africa
Starring Juliane Kohler, Merab Ninidze, Matthias Habich, Sidede Onyulo, Karoline Eckertz, Kea Kurka
Directed by Caroline Link
Released by Zeitgeist
Time 138 minutes