You Know How to Whistle, Don't You?

"You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow." - Lauren Bacall, To Have and Have Not

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Movie review - Nowhere in Africa

Somewhere inside Nowhere in Africa hides the kernel of a great film. Unfortunately, Caroline Link hasn’t found it. Her Oscar-winning drama about a German Jewish family who flee to Kenya in the late 1930s boasts arresting visuals, excellent actors, and potentially engrossing themes of identity and homeland. The film founders on Link’s inconsistent use of perspective and persistent romanticizing of Africa and Africans. She can’t seem to decide what she wants her movie to be: adventure story, Holocaust drama, or family portrait. Not that a good movie couldn’t be all three, but Link often cuts awkwardly between perspectives and emphases.
The film is narrated sporadically by Regina (Karoline Eckertz, Lea Kurka), the daughter of Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze), a lawyer, and his wife Jettel (Juliane Kohler). Walter goes to Kenya ahead of his family, and summons them when he has a house and a job as a tenant farmer. As the family adjusts to their new home, we see their senses of identity shift and change. As the one most aware of the Jews’ impending doom, Walter embraces Africa as a refuge and commits himself to building a home there, but he’s also inextricably bound to Germany. He sets up a radio to stay abreast of news, and wants to return home as soon as he can help repair his country. Regina embraces Africa as a child, befriending Owuor, the family’s cook, immediately, and her childish trust and wonder doesn’t change. She grows older, but doesn’t reflect on her place in Africa or her ties to Germany at all. Regina’s narration is flat, superfluous, and problematic——how do we know so much about Jettel and Walter’s lives alone and as a couple if she’s our viewpoint?
Jettel finds it nearly impossible to leave her old life behind. When her husband asks her to bring a refrigerator and mosquito netting with her, she buys a new formal gown instead. She insists on seeing the move as temporary, and treats Owuor with snobbery bordering on racism. Nearly every task is too much for her, and yet, when given the choice eventually to remain on the farm or go into the capital with Walter, she chooses to farm alone. As she finds her place in her new country, Jettel blossoms. She never entirely sheds her trepidation, but she comes to know and love Africa far more deeply than her husband, with all his initial optimistic bluster. Ultimately, Jettel argues against returning to Germany, not wanting to go through the upheaval of leaving for another strange land. She may have found a harsh welcome in Kenya, but Germany has rejected her utterly. Jettel is the most complex character in the film, and Kohler portrays her every shift of mood with clarity and sensitivity. In one remarkable scene, at Walter’s request, Jettel sheds her reserve and walks topless along the lane, mirroring her Kenyan neighbors’ easy grace. All the film’s themes of culture, gender, identity, and homeland are fused in this one moment, and Kohler carries it beautifully.
The characters develop and emerge largely on their own. Although they’re there as a family, Africa is a lonely refuge, pulling each of them away and into themselves. The doubts and fears caused by isolation and forced ignorance join to tear Walter and Jettel apart. Germany and its horrors are never far from their thoughts. Some references to their former country and its developing Holocaust appear in dialogue and plot, others are more subtle —— Regina is told a story of a maiden with golden hair, recalling the refrain of Paul Celan’s famous Holocaust poem Death Fugue: “your golden hair Margarete, your ashen hair Shulamith.” At one point, the Jewish refugees are interned as German citizens in British Kenya, an absurd yet logical development as the world tumbles into war. The family separates——Walter working in the city, Jettel farming, Regina at school——and they reunite only when the war is over. Much is made of the fact that Walter and Jettel don’t sleep together until the war ends. In the middle of so much uncertainty, their separate lives aren’t only the products of confusion and fear, but attempts at self-protection.
The subtleties that Link brings out in her German protagonists are nowhere to be found in the country and people they encounter. The decision to use ‘Africa’ in the film’s title (as in Out of Africa and I Dreamed of Africa), instead of Kenya, perpetuates the myth of an exotic, impenetrable continent, a mindset that is hopelessly unreflective and out of date. The continent appears as a unified ideal. Experiences there are universalized, lifted out of local, specific places and times. Link emphasizes breathtaking landscapes and a mysterious culture in her depiction of Kenya. Her Kenyan characters are two-dimensional. Owuor is saintly and dedicated, while the villagers are utterly foreign, if engaging, and are usually presented en masse. Regina’s friendship with a young village boy could have explored racial and sexual relations, but instead it’s largely undeveloped, used only to show she’s more comfortable in her new home than anyone else in her family.
This simplistic approach may be intended to reflect the German family’s view of Kenyans as strangers with an incomprehensible language and lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean that as the German characters develop, the Kenyan characters can remain cardboard cutouts. Owuor forsakes living with his family in order to work for the Redlichs, but his decision is presented as just another way in which Kenyan and German cultures differ. Kenyans’ displacement from their own land arises only in a conversation intended to parallel Walter and Jettel’s predicament. Link needed to Kenyans’ conflicts, difficulties, and disempowerment more deeply to make that parallel balanced. Like it or not, the Redlich family is safe at the mercy of others and their safety displaces others.
Nowhere in Africa is worth seeing for Kohler’s riveting, constantly unfolding performance, and for the seeds of a vital, visceral film trapped within Link's beautiful muddle. Jettel and Walter’s marriage and their separate and mutual transformations are intriguing and moving. The film would have been stronger if Link had focused on their relationship and omitted the superfluous narration, dreamy landscapes, and cultural stereotypes that pervade it. Instead, Nowhere in Africa seesaws between perspectives and events, alternately plodding and sparkling, until we’re as ready as the Redlichs for the war to be over so they and we can be at home.
Originally published May 8, 2003.


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