White people have had various reasons for journeying to Africa over the years ' adventure, riches, fame, missionary zeal. But for certain German Jewish families back in the 1930s, the continent represented survival, an escape from the Nazi crackdown. One such family: the Redlichs, from Breslau, who got out before the window-smashing terror of Kristallnacht and wound up on a farm in Kenya. You may recall that Isak Dinesen had a farm in Kenya, which Meryl Streep heroically tried to keep afloat in Out of Africa. The Redlichs ' Walter (Merab Ninidze), his wife, Jettel (Juliane Kohler), and their daughter, Regina (Lea Kurka as a young girl, Karoline Eckertz as an older girl) ' don't own their farm. They're just tenants. Which is to say, they've come down in the world, although not near as far down as they might have come back in Germany.
That gap between broken dreams and unimaginable nightmares lies at the heart of Nowhere in Africa, which won the foreign film Oscar this year. Adapted from an autobiographical novel by German journalist Stefanie Zweig, it's the epic story of a family that wasn't looking for an exotic life but, through circumstances beyond its control, found itself living one. Zweig was the daughter, and Nowhere in Africa is filtered through her childhood memories. But the movie focuses on her mother, Jettel, who took a long time getting used to the African veldt and then, when World War II was finally over, refused to leave. At first, Jettel treats the local population the same way the Nazis had treated her ' with disdain. Then, as so often happens in movies like this one, the African sun works its magic, baking her prejudices into tolerance, even love.
That's the kind of romantic notion that Out of Africa wallowed in ' Africa as a crucible, crushing Western ideas about life and love into a fine powder. Where Nowhere in Africa has a slight edge over Out of Africa, however, is in the ups and downs of Walter and Jettel's marriage. They might have lasted years back in Breslau, playing their assigned roles, but in Kenya they're thrown up against their limitations as a couple ' Jettel's need to be pampered, Walter's need to feel important. Meanwhile, history keeps intervening. When the British arrive, Walter is sent off to a camp with all the other men who are German expatriates. Jettel and Regina are interned too, albeit in a luxury hotel that reminds Jettel of the good old days back in Breslau. That she schemes to get of there suggests how much she's changed.
As for the young Regina, she changes the moment she steps off the train ' another romantic notion, Africa as children's paradise. When Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), the family's new Kenyan cook, sweeps her up into his arms, she leans forward and takes a big whiff. It smells like home to her, and she's soon forgotten everything she knew about Germany. Nowhere in Africa is so sensitive to the Redlichs' family dynamics that you wish it were more attuned to Owuor's family dynamics. We're told he has three wives but never meet any of them. This is hardly the first time that a movie about Africa has turned the Africans into part of the scenery, of course. And on its own colonialist terms, Nowhere in Africa is a pleasure to watch ' choppy in places, but otherwise flowing on by like the best years of one's life.