I went into Nowhere in Africa nursing a bit of a grudge over its Oscar trouncing of two movies I greatly admired, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Talk to Her. It didn’t help matters that I was facing a long film (141 minutes) at 10 p.m., right after seeing Swimming Pool, which had given me a cinematic high I resented the prospect of coming down from. Plus, a movie about German Jewish refugees in 1930s Africa sounded high-minded, too much like Oscar-bait and quite possibly too deadly earnest.
But there was no choice but to go. So, armed with a fresh infusion of coffee, I trudged upstairs at the Fine Arts. But my irritation soon turned to intrigue — and then to delight — with this movie on wholly a stylistic basis. I had never seen anything by director Caroline Link before (an omission soon to be rectified), so I was unprepared to find myself facing such uncommonly fluid camerawork — the daring (in these days) to make intelligent use of the zoom lens, and the nerve not to have every move seamlessly controlled by computers and elaborate, soulless technical wizardry.
Moreover, Africa‘s narrative sense quickly showed itself to be far from traditionalist — and its apparent high-mindedness was too shot through with humor, humanity and irony to seem deadly earnest. (How much more ironic can you get than British soldiers putting refugee German Jews in internment camps because of their nationality?) But this all raised the more immediate question after about 30 minutes as to whether Link could pull this off for nearly two more hours. And if she didn’t quite, she certainly came close enough.
Link’s film, based on the partly autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig, details the story of one Jewish family that makes it out of Germany and into Kenya just in time to be spared the worst of the Nazi atrocities. Nowhere in Africa unusually — and I think wisely — keeps the Holocaust in the background. The characters in the film do not experience the Holocaust themselves, so neither should the viewer.
The film feels less like a narrative and more like it’s moving with something of the jumbled quality of memory. Link doesn’t give a literal picture of events, nor does she try to; she presents them as they might seem in the memory of a child. As a result, the story is a bit scattered, though this actually works for the film, not against it. Africa feels lived in.
At movie’s end, you don’t so much feel that you’ve watched events happen but that you’ve experienced them yourself up on the screen. For all Africa‘s stylistic flourishes, it never really lets the viewer go outside the events; it never distances itself from you. Focusing on this small microcosm of refugees, the film presents an unusual intimacy that keeps its characters from becoming merely symbolic. They are first and foremost human beings, and much of their story could be anyone’s — in their coming to terms with people who turn out to be far different than expected, in their struggling with a new location that seems inferior to the old one just because it’s not comfortable, in their facing up to disappointments and destroyed illusions, etc.
The film’s stars are either largely unknown to American audiences, or are, in fact, newcomers; this adds to the movie’s sense of being more heightened reality than story. A lot of Africa is about making-do — how do you cope when not only is everything taken away from you, but you learn that your wife isn’t so keen on you once you go from being a well-off lawyer to being a dirt-poor farmer (and a bad one) in an alien land? What do you do when you think you’ve rebuilt your life and your marriage and then you find out that your husband wants to go back to the world you once thought you could never live without, but that you are now afraid to re-enter? What do you do when all your relations are far away, and are then systematically murdered by a mad dictator?
These and other excruciating questions are faced by the film’s central family — concerns that are specific to these people, but that are also within the realm of a more universal humanity. And at the end of it all, that’s what Africa is about. Consequently, it leaves you feeling both elated and deflated — much like life has a tendency to do.
While Roman Polanski’s The Pianist may be the most shattering film yet to deal with the Holocaust, Africa may well be the most human. Whether by accident or design — or because of the enormity of the subject matter — most movies dealing with this topic tend to leave audiences feeling guilty about their own obsessions and much smaller problems. Nowhere in Africa succeeds by playing on our own smaller problems, forcing a comprehension of how much like us the people up on the screen really are.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke