Far from home: Nowhere in Africa defies stereotypes

Like any film about the Holocaust, the deserving Oscar winner Nowhere in Africa is concerned with survival, but it's even more about questions of identity.

In this true story, Jettel (Juliane Kohler) and Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze) are German Jews who have the sense and luck to leave the country in the 1930s while it's still possible. After about a decade in Kenya, they have a chance to return to Germany but question where they belong at this point– which country, if either, is their home.

Is Walter the lawyer he was in Germany or the farmer he has been in Africa? What of their daughter Regina (Karoline Eckertz), who has spent more of her life in Africa than Europe? And with all their blood relations dead, is anyone more "family" to them than their faithful cook, Owuor (Sidede Onyulo)?

Most of these questions don't arise during the first two hours of Caroline Link's often surprising film, which shows the family slowly adjusting to their circumstances and enduring various setbacks.

The story begins in January 1938, when Walter, who went to Kenya first, is finally able to send for Jettel and Regina (Lea Kurka, as a child). They have to leave their money and most of their material possessions behind and don't realize that while they're traveling Walter is being nursed through a bout of malaria by Owuor.

When they arrive, Jettel can't accept that she's no longer bourgeois, but young Regina jumps right in and starts learning the local language and customs. Jettel learns more painfully, as when Owuor tells her, "Men don't carry water. That's women's work"; but then he shames himself by taking pity on her and carrying the water cans she's filled.

Ill-equipped for farming and not disposed to hunt, Walter is outshone by a longer-term neighbor, Susskind (Matthias Habich). The stage is set for a Red Dust/Mogambo-like story of a wife drifting toward the more primitive man in a primitive situation, but here it remains more of a possibility than an inevitability.

Jettel tries to be condescending as she prefaces her racist warnings to Regina with, "I don't have anything against Negroes, but..." Walter finally brings her around by likening her to "some people in Germany to whom you certainly wouldn't like to be compared." The point is well taken.

News from home comes via occasional, increasingly desperate, letters and radio broadcasts that get a lot worse before they start getting better.

When war breaks, out the British rulers of Kenya round up "enemy aliens," putting the men in an internment camp and the women and children, for want of an alternative, in a luxury hotel in Nairobi. It's the only taste Jettel has of her former life.

Eventually the Brits are made to see that Jews don't side with Hitler, whatever their country of origin. That doesn't mean they'll ever let the Redlichs feel like part of the ruling class, even when Walter serves in their army.

While Nowhere in Africa fails to adhere to formulaic expectations throughout, Link saves her biggest surprises for the final half-hour: a sequence that alternates between sex and the revelation of bad news from back home; and a locust invasion that seems to come from another picture, but provides a fitting climax for this one.

Once they leave Germany, the Redlichs have time for problems that aren't directly related to the war, letting Nowhere in Africa fall into several categories, including that of plain ol' damn good movie.