- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

"Nowhere in Africa" sounds like a melodramatic tear-jerker at first blush. Jewish family flees Nazi Germany for Kenya; husband and wife endure a relationship as uncertain as the East African terrain.
Instead, writer-director Caroline Link (1996's "Beyond Silence") delivers a poignant travelogue steeped in historical gravitas. Patiently, almost to a fault, Miss Link renders a loving portrait of a world far removed from the European horrors circa 1938.
"Africa," which won the Oscar for best foreign-language film Sunday, isn't a classic romance by any stretch, but its love affair with Kenya and its denizens will linger long after its extended running time.
Based on the best-selling German autobiography by Stefanie Zweig, "Africa" demands patience. The most harrowing moment comes late, when a locust invasion paralyzes the family farm. Most of the turmoil is internal, as the family realizes the homeland has become a land of genocide.
Told through the eyes of its young protagonist, the couple's daughter, "Africa" captures the untouched beauty of African landscapes, but the director remains content to let the magnificent visuals seep into the story.
Jettel (Juliane Kohler) and Walter (Merab Ninidze) live a comfortable upper-crust existence in Germany until the Nazi regime rises to power. The scenes, cast in shadowy tones, bark with danger, but all the impending doom is implied.
When the couple realize their faith has made them enemies of the state, they flee. Once they arrive in Kenya, they settle into field work and are generally accepted by their new neighbors.
Walter takes to the manual labor but cannot accept that his homeland has become a nightmare. Jettel's denial remains so steep that she packs a ball gown among her essential items. Initially, she refuses to unpack fully.
"We won't be here that long," she says.
Daughter Regina, ably played by young Lea Kurka and later by Karoline Eckertz, adapts easiest to her new home. Upon her arrival, she touches the skin of a native Kenyan, perhaps signifying her first exposure to another race. It's a caress of curiosity and an apt metaphor for the two cultures meeting with uncertainty.
She delights in playing with her new friends, but her strongest bond comes with Owuor (Sidede Onyulo, who possesses a wonderfully evocative visage), the family's cook, who becomes much more to all three before the movie's end.
Six months later, the family appears to have adjusted to its surroundings, but the couple's marriage, which at the outset appears marginally passionate, teeters toward a breakdown. Separation, infidelity and the stressors of their new home threaten the bond.
As the war in Europe winds down, the family members are left to wonder not only if they will return home, but in what shape the family might emerge.
The anti-Semitic strains in both Germany and Africa aren't paraded before us but are blended efficiently into the storytelling. Nor are we subjected to scenes of Nazi atrocities. We learn the fates of the family's loved ones through a series of letters. We can paint the rest of the agonizing portrait ourselves.
Miss Link's yarn may sag in spots, but her craft often astounds. One beautiful moment intertwines the lovemaking at one of the couple's reunions with them reading a tragic letter of their family's fate.
Little is shown to portray Kenya negatively, but the film doesn't veil the country's physical shortcomings. Life is hard, but the camaraderie between neighbors makes it palatable, sometimes preferable to life in the family's homeland.
The couple's relationship is far more complex than most love stories. We don't see some of their disagreements, we simply observe as life separates them and haphazardly throws them back together. Not helping matters is Mr. Ninidze's performance, which, though otherwise solid, comes off as a bit cold.
"Nowhere in Africa" may illuminate Kenya through a rosier filter than one might expect, but given that the country provided shelter for the author of the source material, much can be forgiven, particularly because the story is told with uncommon beauty and poise.

***
TITLE: "Nowhere in Africa"
RATING: Unrated (Fleeting nudity, mild violence)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Caroline Link. German with English subtitles.
RUNNING TIME: 138 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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