Given its narrative set-up--a Jewish German family leaves Germany for Africa in order to escape the Nazis--"Nowhere in Africa" has often been called "a different kind of Holocaust" film. However, except for the fact that the main characters' relatives are killed by the Nazis, the movie isn't about the Holocaust experience so much as it is about cultural identity as well as conflict between adopting and adapting to new surroundings. Even the main characters' discussions of their "Jewishness" have more to do with how they feel about themselves than with the events that took place in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.
In "Nowhere in Africa", which won the Best Foreign Language Film award in March of 2003, Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze) relocates his nuclear family to Kenya. Walter's unable to afford or to convince his other relatives to leave Germany, so the three Redlichs are immediately outsiders and alone in Africa. The nearest Germans live several hours away by car. Jettel (Juliane Kohler), Walter's wife, complains about the harsh conditions and the fact that she misses her mother and her sister. Caught between her parents is Regina (played as a child by Lea Kurka and as a teenager by Karoline Eckertz), who misses her relatives (her grandfather especially) but also takes an immediate liking to her new home. The film follows the Redlichs as they struggle to raise cattle on one farm, are detained as "enemy aliens" by the British army (since they're Germans), raise crops on another farm, separate (Regina attends a British boarding school far from her parents), and deal with how different life in Africa is from life in Germany. Since Walter was a lawyer and Jettel was a Western housewife in Germany, they are unprepared for the harshness of manual labor.
The film's greatest strength and point of interest is its realistic examination of how a family experiences "real" life. As Walter's father says to Jettel, the difficulty of relationships lies in the fact that one person always loves more than the other does. In Walter and Jettel's case, he is the one whose love never wavers. However, Jettel has a physical affair with one man and a flirtatious relationship with another fellow. She cheats on Walter as a way to express her dissatisfaction with life in Africa as well as with Walter's insistence that he's doing what's best for everyone without consulting his family. We also get to see how a little girl, Regina, maturely deals with her family's problems rather than throwing tantrums. After all, in real life, we have to confront the obstacles that face us rather than hoping to explode them away.
Most reviewers seem to think that Walter and Jettel's feelings about being in Africa are reversed as the film progresses. I disagree with that assessment. At the start of the film, Jettel doesn't want to be in Kenya, and at the end of the film, she doesn't want to leave it. A lot of people think that Walter undertakes the opposite journey. However, I feel that Walter never really wanted to be in Africa at all, either. He transfers his family from Germany to Kenya in order to escape from the Nazi threat. Still, he thinks of himself as a German more than he thinks of himself as a Jew or even as an individual. In a sense, he wants to return to Germany more than Jettel ever does because she simply wants the material and emotional comforts that Germany has when compared to Africa. After she becomes accustomed to life in Kenya, she attaches herself to her adopted home. On the other hand, Walter merely adapts to Africa and anticipates a return to Western civilization's social structure.
The issue of the Redlichs' "Jewishness" is discussed as a part of the characters' overall identities. Jettel tells Regina that she and her husband never really thought of themselves as Jews since they were so firmly entrenched in German culture and consciousness. In a sense, their "Jewishness" was forced upon them by the Nazis. Therefore, Walter wants to go back to Germany at the end of WWII so that he can help re-build Germany. However, for Jettel, Germany is a reminder of being forcibly separated from one's national "self", and Africa has given her the means of finding her personal identity (as opposed to a technical one imposed upon her by politics). As for Regina, she barely remembers Germany, so Africa is her "home".
Earlier this year (2003), I had the fortune of reviewing "Mostly Martha" ("Bella Martha"). Now, I have the pleasure of reviewing "Nowhere in Africa". When it comes to European movies, those of us in the United States mostly get British, French, and Irish fare. If there are several German films that are as good as "Mostly Martha" and "Nowhere in Africa", then I hope to see more and more German flicks soon.
Most shoots in Africa look gorgeous on film, especially with movies shot with the 2.35:1 ratio. "Nowhere in Africa" is not an exception. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is sumptuous, and the digital transfer does the picture justice. I love the deep orange hues of the film's sunsets, and the colors look naturalistic. The filmmakers also use film's ability to capture a sense of depth to great effect. (I'm telling you, digital video sucks.) The print is dependably clean and clear, and I didn't see any serious problems with the compression. I noticed a few small nicks and scratches, but they're there only if you're looking for them.
Since the movie is more of a family drama than it is anything else, the Dolby Digital 5.1 German track is mostly front-heavy. The rear channels have a couple of things to do when the lively music score sparks to life, but mostly, the surrounds provide a wee bit of ambient noise (and some chirping crickets). The audio offers a wide frontstage, though, and there's an impressive amount of bass (for a family drama) when required.
Optional English subtitles as well as optional English closed captions support the audio.
"Nowhere in Africa" won five German equivalents of the Oscar and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. From the look of things, I'm guessing that the extras offered by Sony's two-disc special edition were created for the film's German DVD release. I'm glad that Sony decided to present "Nowhere to Africa" as a prestige package (with its German extras intact) rather than saving money by dumping a bare-bones product on American soil.
Although "Nowhere in Africa" isn't an official member of Sony's SuperBit line of DVDs, you'll find that Disc 1 offers only the film, the film's primary audio track, and an audio commentary by a couple of the primary filmmakers. Skimping on extras on Disc 1 means that the video and the audio enjoy a lot of breathing room for a quality viewing experience.
The participants in the audio commentary speak in German, and the DVD provides subtitles for the commentary (Sony seems to have a track record for this sort of thing as evidenced by the audio commentary in Japanese on the "Final Fantasy" disc--also subtitled in English). At any rate, you can opt to listen to the audio commentary or to read the subtitles only, but listening to the participants' voices helps make you feel as if you're watching a movie with a bunch of good friends. The information provided by the commentary is also very interesting since the production generated so many anecdotes.
(The "German" extras on Disc 2 mostly have audio with German dialogue. Therefore, you'll find optional English subtitles on the DVD for those who don't understand German.)
You can watch about twenty-minutes' worth of deleted scenes with optional audio commentary. They're worth a glance, but even the filmmakers admit that the film would be unnecessarily long had the scenes stayed in the final cut.
The "making of" featurette on the DVD shows that DVDs of American films aren't the only ones being packed with fluffy promo pieces, though the featurette is admittedly above-average when it comes to these sorts of things. A collection of "Cast and Crew Interviews" adds direct personal reminisces to the mix.
There are some storyboard comparisons for a sequence that needed detailed prepping (the attack of the locusts late in the story), a couple of presentations of some score selections, and a photo montage. Finally, you get the theatrical trailer for "Nowhere in Africa" as well as three other Sony DVD releases.
A glossy insert provides chapter listings.
"Nowhere in Africa" is too episodic to work as an attention-holding narrative, and it's a tad long at 142 minutes. However, it's a beautifully-shot piece that functions as an insightful, realistic look at how real-life pressures mold a family's growth. This is a Holocaust movie only by incident. It's really a film about identity and human responses. Being a "fish out of the water" myself, I saw little bits of me in every one of the film's main characters, and I was absorbed by (if not totally immersed in) "Nowhere in Africa".