Nowhere in Africa [subtitled]

Nowhere in Africa

Nowhere in Africa is a German language film about an upper class German Jewish married couple and their young daughter who prudently get out of Germany on the eve of World War II. The movie is based on the memoir written by the daughter—Stefanie Zweig—and so is based on a true story. Though it is to some extent told from the young girl’s perspective, the film does not limit itself to only information and only scenes that she would have experienced or been aware of at the time. So think of it as a combination of her perspective, and the more typical omniscient movie perspective.

The best the family can come up with for a place to go—helped by their contacts with the small Jewish community there—is Kenya, at the time a British colony. They leave behind most of their relatives and friends (who meet a predictable fate), as well as much of their wealth, since there’s a limit to how much the German government will let them take out of the country.

In Kenya, the three of them must make their adjustments over time. Used to a cultured urban environment, they now find themselves on a farm in the middle of nowhere in Africa.

It is perhaps hardest on the little girl, since she is just a little girl, but on the other hand you could say it is the least difficult for her because she is least set in her ways, least used to their old life.

The father had been an attorney, so the move to farming is both a drastic change and a big step down in terms of social prestige and his own ego, which he does not always handle smoothly.

But the mother takes the move even harder, early on especially. At least the father accepts it as a necessary evil; it’s almost like the mother can’t even acknowledge that and just wants to complain about how unfair it all is for her to have to live this way.

She’s not presented as a wholly unsympathetic character, and certainly she undergoes some growth, shows some strength, as the film goes on, but I never particularly warmed to her. I never overcame my awareness of how her early disagreeableness had rubbed me the wrong way.

The family is in a peculiar position when war breaks out. They are residents in British territory, and so as Germans they are immediately suspect. On the other hand, as Jewish Germans who basically fled Germany, common sense indicates they aren’t going to be inclined to support Germany in this war.

So should the British ignore them, kick them out of Kenya, incarcerate them for the duration of the war, hold them just long enough to investigate them, recruit them to fight for the Allies against the Germans, or what?

There’s a nice moment in the movie when the mother must face the fact that in her superior attitude toward the native Kenyans and her desire that her family intermingle with them as little as possible, she is manifesting a mindset loosely analogous to how the non-Jewish Germans look down on the Jews as an inferior and polluting race.

Arguably the more pertinent analogy that’s left unexamined is the role of the British in Kenya, or more generally the Europeans in Africa and other colonized areas of the world, in the first place. Whatever personal insight she might gain through confrontation with her own individual prejudices, what of the larger, and incalculably more momentous, racism of the geopolitical context in which this all occurs?

Why is it that just by having the right contacts with Jews abroad, who in turn have the right contacts with the British, a man is able to go to other people’s country and inform them matter-of-factly as he makes claim to a certain parcel of land “I’m the new bwana here”? Why is it accepted without question that they must now function as he and his family’s servants and field workers?

I never really got into this movie more than minimally. I’m not sure why. The subject matter is important, there’s plenty going on morally and psychologically (which is usually a huge factor in my assessment of a movie), there’s visually pleasing scenery, the acting seems fine, the production values are high, the story’s not incomprehensible or illogical, there aren’t pretentious artsy or kooky elements tossed in—I should have liked this movie a lot more than I did.

It’s hard to put my finger on why I couldn’t bring myself to care more about these characters or this movie. There’s just something safe and inoffensive and formulaic about it. It has the feel of a certified “good” or “important” movie, but such films don’t always reach me. When I saw The English Patient years ago, for instance, I found that even more unengaging than this film and forgot most or all its particulars within five minutes of the closing credits. Not all highly regarded movies that one is supposed to like connect with me.

That that’s as likely to be an issue with me—or even just the mood I was in the evening I saw this movie—as it is reflective of any flaw in the film, I fully acknowledge.

I’ve already alluded to the lack of attention to the inherent injustice of the British presence as overlords in Kenya to begin with, so I suppose that’s one bone I could pick with this film.

Actually the depiction of the Kenyans in general is open to criticism. From the head servant/man Friday/tutor Owuor who is one of the main characters, to the supporting players, to the extras, the Kenyans to a man are noble, wise, spiritually deep, exotically intriguing folks. Their indigenous culture is presented in politically correct fashion as one that is not scary or inferior once you open yourself up to it, but just different (or if anything superior).

Yet at the same time they are always agreeable and cooperative. There’s no hint of conflict underneath the surface, no indication they are unsatisfied with their lot, nothing ominous about their presence in the background of a movie largely about whites.

One wonders how the Mau Maus emerged from such a peaceful and contented people, but I guess that’s another movie.

Anyway, just in terms of subjectively how well Nowhere in Africa held my interest and how much I enjoyed it, I’d rank it below the average of the movies I’ve written about so far, which is certainly not bad, since the movies I see are the ones I cherry pick as those I’m most likely to like. I suspect, though, that objectively it deserves to be assessed a level or two above that.

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