When James Agee wrote in these pages sixty years ago, he often complained of the paltriness of this or that movie, as judged against the events of the day. His standard of seriousness was World War II–and so, for that matter, is mine. I see enormity rather than grandeur in the current Administration’s agenda: freeing a region by making it captive, creating prosperity through looting, countering terror with horror. I like Nowhere in Africa and The Safety of Objects because they fall short of such imperial ambitions. These movies put their faith not in geopolitics but in the sight of one woman’s hand reaching for another’s.
Although Nowhere in Africa ends on just that moment of contact, the film is more ambitious than you might suspect, since this domestic drama also turns out to be a travelogue and a war movie. Written and directed by Caroline Link, based on an autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig, Nowhere in Africa encompasses Kristallnacht, Stalingrad, D-Day and the Nuremberg trials, though it presents them as reports heard on a whiny radio or seen in a newsreel. Instead of blowing her money on scenes of history in the making, Link has focused intimately on Jettel and Walter Redlich and their young daughter, Regina, German Jewish refugees who are holed up indefinitely in Kenya.
“Holed up,” of course, is entirely the wrong phrase, given that Walter has rescued his wife and daughter from the Nazis by taking a laborer’s job on the savannah, where his shack is so isolated that Link needs a helicopter for the establishing shot. Here’s where she did blow the budget, as well as the logistical resources of her crew, by shooting Nowhere in Africa in rural locations, including areas near Mount Kenya and Lake Baringo. The landscape is wunderschön, as Jettel says upon joining her husband–“but of course one can’t live here.” The china she’d insisted on packing stays in the crates, awaiting the day (very soon, she imagines) when she’ll return to Breslau; and the German language remains on her tongue. While her husband converses easily in Kiswahili with the wry and lanky Owuor (who is officially the family’s cook and unofficially its protector), while her daughter quickly soaks up African words, Jettel communicates principally by snapping orders, telling Owuor to “learn German if you want to talk to me.” She seethes, until flames seem to migrate from her head into the terrain, where a brushfire breaks out. She must leave at once, she howls, as orange tongues lick up from the grass. Walter can think of no better way to calm her than to break the news about Kristallnacht. There’s nowhere to go.
The rest of the movie might be described as the story of how Jettel, yielding to necessity, slowly learns to love Kenya. The witness to this change is presumably her daughter (played at different ages by Lea Kurka and Karoline Eckertz), who provides an intermittent voiceover narration; but in a pleasant surprise, the film’s consciousness resides mostly with the mother. She is played by the red-haired, blue-eyed Juliane Köhler, who at the beginning reveals more than a hint of self-righteous anger under Jettel’s tailored outfits and careful makeup. You can guess that this now-mature woman, who prizes her looks, fears the last of her youth will be lost in Kenya. Then, playing out a transformation that is linguistic, attitudinal, sartorial, sexual and moral all at once, Köhler shows how Jettel comes to seem happier, prettier, perhaps even younger as she ages. It’s a progress that lets Köhler warm up as she goes along, to her evident pleasure.