As Roman Polanski's The Pianist illustrates, even survivors of Hitler's genocidal madness paid a horrible price. Fortunes were stolen. Careers were destroyed. Dignity was denied. And those who somehow managed to endure did so without the comfort of loved ones who perished. Caroline Link's Nowhere in Africa, winner of last year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, expands our understanding of how the Holocaust is the ultimate family story of our time, of how the insanity that gripped Germany during the reign of the Nazis affected families in ways we haven't routinely contemplated.
Adapted by Link from Stefanie Zweig's autobiographical novel, Nowhere in Africa is the story of three Holocaust survivors who flee to Kenya in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution. Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze), a handsome German lawyer, sets off first, makes contact with the Kenyan Jewish community -- mostly Jewish Brits, we gather -- and procures their support for bringing his beautiful wife, Jettel (Juliane Kohler), and their 5-year-old daughter, Regina (played at various ages by Lea Kurka and Karoline Eckertz), to join him. The shock of relocation is immediate and extensive; the Redlichs were an affluent professional family in Germany. In Kenya, Walter can find employment only as a tenant farmer for an irascible Englishman named Morrison (Steve Weston). Link emphasizes the wrenching nature of the Redlichs' move by cutting back and forth from an evergreen and snowy German sledding slope, where mother and daughter frolic with sisters and aunts, to their Kenyan home in an unpainted wood farmhouse, which stands on a parched landscape that is brown and treeless for as far as the eye can see.
Listening to the radio, the Redlichs learn the details of the tightening noose of genocide, and in the occasional letters from home, they learn of the suffering of the parents and siblings they left behind. But safe from bodily harm, the Redlichs nonetheless suffer too. They are separated from loved ones and powerless to help them, as their family members are crowded into ghettos and ultimately delivered to the death camps. The Redlichs take refuge in a forbidding environment diametrically opposite from the one they've always known. They can speak neither Swahili nor English, Kenya's two main languages. And they are engaged in hard, physical employment for which they have neither training nor experience.
Not surprisingly, Regina adjusts most easily. She masters the other languages quickly, and she finds playmates among the children of the local village, many of whose fathers labor on the farm her father manages. Walter struggles mightily to embrace the rural, agricultural life. He treats his workers with respect and wields shovel and hoe by their sides. Still, he worries that his lowered station in life has diminished him in his wife's eyes. Jettel has the most difficulty accepting her new circumstances; she has foolishly packed her steamer trunk with fine china and ball gowns rather than the utilitarian supplies Walter told her to bring. Shortly after arriving, she announces that she can't possibly live as Walter has arranged for them to. She initially treats the family's beatific Kenyan cook and housekeeper, Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), with far less politeness and appreciation than he deserves. Not surprisingly, the strain of change and ill fortune pulls at the fabric of the Redlich's marriage. The couple's sex life ceases. Fights break out at the slightest provocation.
And then matters get worse. Hitler invades Poland, and Walter is arrested by the British because he's a German national. To get Walter free from an internment camp, Jettel has an affair with a British officer. In an example of the thorough way this film examines human complexity, it's clear that she is acting in her husband's interest but at the same time that she's genuinely attracted to the man she sleeps with. That in a nutshell, is the great strength of this film, one that sets it apart from other pictures -- many in themselves worthy -- that have addressed the Holocaust. Walter and Jettel Redlich are not mere victims of a great atrocity. They are complicated and, like us all, necessarily flawed people, capable of mistakes born of cultural prejudice, vanity, stubbornness, selfishness and a whole array of other human failings. Even young Regina can be spiteful when she ought to be forgiving.
Like The Pianist, Nowhere in Africa reminds us that the victims of the Holocaust included the survivors as well as the murdered. That alone makes the film important. But we can admire it for reasons purely cinematic, for its wonderful cinematography, for its charismatic performances and for its wisdom in understanding that among the virtues possessed by our imperfect species, love transcends.