We Had a Farm in Africa

If Hitler hadn’t come along, Jettel and Walter Redlich would have considered themselves more German than Jewish. But in 1938 Walter (Merab Ninidze), a lawyer, is prescient enough to know he has to get his wife and daughter Regina out of Germany fast, even if it means starting from scratch in a new world. And few places could be as unfamiliar as the remote plains of Kenya, where Walter tries to reinvent himself as a tenant farmer. When Jettel (Juliane Kohler) joins him, she brings boxes of her fine china and a fancy party dress on which she spent her last money. This is not going to be easy.

This is one tale of the Jewish diaspora we haven’t seen before. Caroline Link’s beautifully crafted “Nowhere in Africa,” the likely front runner for this year’s foreign-film Oscar, has an epic scale and an intimate touch. Even if you didn’t know that it was based on an autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig, the freshness of the details tells you this story had to be inspired by firsthand experience. Regina–played first by 10-year-old Lea Kurka and then by 13-year-old Karoline Eckertz–is obviously a version of the author. Unlike her deracinated parents, this smart, unsentimental little girl has no trouble opening herself to Africa, befriending the cook Owuor (Sidede Onyulo) and the local kids, picking up the native language, shedding her shoes and her bourgeois assumptions.

Link’s movie is an absorbing tale of cultural displacement and adjustment. It’s also a remarkably complex examination of a marriage: ultimately, it’s the spoiled, beautiful Jettel who intrigues the writer-director most. Homesick, horrified by her newfound poverty, oozing unconscious racism, Jettel’s not an easy character to like. But if she makes snap judgments, Link doesn’t. The film keeps Jettel in seriocomic perspective, and when she begins to get the hang of her new life, her transformation is so subtle–and Kohler’s performance so rich–that her passage into maturity is utterly convincing. The emotional dynamics of this family–husband and wife, mother and daughter–are in constant flux, and they give the movie its volatile pulse.

When the British arrive, the family is displaced again. The Brits have orders to intern all Germans, never mind that the Redlichs are not likely to be Nazi sympathizers. But just as you expect a wrenching turn of events, Link throws a comic curve: the women and children are “imprisoned” in Nairobi’s poshest hotel. “Nowhere in Africa” has many further twists ahead: it takes us past the end of the war, when the Redlichs must make hard choices about their future. This German movie, with its lush cinematography and lovely score, has the sturdiness of an old-fashioned Hollywood epic. What isn’t Hollywood is Link’s refusal to tell the audience how to feel at every moment. She scrapes away the treacle, and makes her ambivalent, all too human characters earn our affections honestly.

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