"Nowehere in Africa", Caroline Link's deserving Oscar winner (!) and saving grace for financially troubled distributor Zeitgeist Films, carries rare qualities that make it something of a diamond in the rough. There are so few truly uplifting films set during World War II that I could count them on one hand, and "Nowehere in Africa" is one of them. It certainly does not make light of the situation, but by the progression and maturity of its characters it re-enforces the belief that even in such awful times, there was still good in the world.
Jettel Redlich (Juliane Kohler) is living in Germany with her daughter, Regina (played by both Karoline Eckertz and Lea Kurka) in the mid-thirties. Her husband, Walter (Merab Ninidze) is making a living farming somewhere in Kenya, for reasons which to Regina and Jettel are not immediately known. He sends for them both and instructs them to come to Kenya.
When they arrive, Regina is acclimatized immediately, much to the help of Walters aide, Owuor (Sidede Onyulo). As opposed to Germany, she fits in in Kenya, not only with Owuor but also with the local children. Jettel does not have such success. Her heart still belongs in Germany, and she has no concept of how life has to be lived on a farm in Africa: she has the opportunity to get a much-needed icebox on the way down from Germany, but she instead spends that money on an evening gown. After six weeks, she is bitter, unpleasant and craving food and friends from back home; not realizing the danger that's there.
Jettel's submission from resistance to her new life in Kenya is one of the most fascinating things about the film. When we learn about each new development in Germany as years go by on the Redlich's farm, the effect is not the same as the same information might be in, say, "The Pianist". It is not only sadness that is incurred with each radio news update of the massacre of the Jews by the Nazis, but through them, Link achieves something greater. It is understood that what Link is doing here is not merely trying to portray the overwhelming grief that resulted from the Holocaust. She is trying to paint a portrait of appreciation; illustrating, especially with Jettel, how people come to realize how truly lucky they are to possess the most basic of the fundamental human rights.
The contrast between the settings of late-thirties Germany and Africa is equally stunning and moving to watch. As the Redlichs become more and more aware of their good fortune, the beauty of Africa is maximized. Link uses Kenya as a symbol for a glimmer of hope in the world's eye as so much evil is going on around it. Mind you, do not take this to mean that "Nowehere in Africa" is disrespectful to those who had their lives taken away from them in this horrible period; the overarching feeling of the film is a beautiful melancholy. Beautiful, since the native Kenyans and the Redlichs are eventually able to live in perfect harmony, mostly thanks to the un-prejudicial eye of Regina and her mentor, Owuor. Melancholy because no matter how heartwarming the film can get, there is the feeling that somewhere, someone close to the characters onscreen is going through awful pain and anguish.
All of these feelings are portrayed through a strong directorial vision. Link is able to constantly engage us so thoroughly throughout the entire film in the lives of people we may otherwise have no connection to. One scene in particular stands out, where locusts threaten to destroy the entire crop product on the farm. Directed by a second-rate filmmaker, this situation would naturally generate disinterest, but Link manages to make our hearts jump into our throats. I wish, however, that some of the romance bits weren't so uneven, as they tend to become somewhat artificial at points. But on the whole, "Nowehere in Africa" is a warm, at times almost joyous film that doesn't shut itself out from the rest of the world, but is able to find something in it to believe in. With times as troubled as they are these days, I figure this is the kind of film that deserves, or better yet needs, to be seen.