In the 1930s, Jews lucky enough to get out of Europe prior to the onset of Nazi persecution scattered to the ends of the Earth in search of any safe haven that would have them. Some settled in Kenya, like Stefanie Zweig, who was only five when her family fled from Silesia in 1937. Zweig chronicled their heart-wrenching tale of survival in the autobiographical Nowhere In Africa, a best-selling novel that focused on the travails of her challenging childhood.
Caroline Link, the brilliant German director whose Beyond Silence was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1998, has fashioned a fascinating biopic based on Zweig’s book. This compelling picture swept the German Film Awards last year, winning five Golden Lolas, including prizes for Best Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography.
The movie stars Juliane Kohler (Aimee & Jaguar) and Mirab Ninidze (Luna Papa) as Jettel and Walter Redlich, respectively, the desperate parents of Regina, the youngster at the center of this anguished tale. The role of Regina is handled very capably by a pair of newcomers making impressive acting debuts: Lea Kurka (the early years) and by Karoline Eckertz (as an adolescent).
This fairly faithful adaptation opens with Walter already established in Africa but barely subsisting on the parched piece of land he’s rented in a remote town called Rongai. Walter’s training as a lawyer proves utterly useless in his newfound career as a farmer. And it doesn’t help that almost everyone around speaks either English and/or Swahili, but not German.
Jettel arrives, daughter in tow, wondering whether they really needed to abandon their relatively luxurious creature comforts for such squalor in so isolated and alien an environ. After all, her well-to-do family, her in-laws and other Jewish friends remained behind, despite the specter of Hitler’s burgeoning anti-Semitism. So, Jettel, still seeing this move as temporary, initially resists assimilation at every turn.
By contrast, the more malleable Regina overcomes her own reticence right away, readily befriending the Kikuyu kids who live in huts nearby. Plus, the precocious girl has the sense to lean on the shoulder of the noble Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), a sort of spiritual figure who highlights the magical side of the Kenyan culture while doubling as her family’s resourceful handyman.
This story of involuntary escape, narrated from Regina’s point of view, shows her faring far better at adapting to the rigors of the region than either of her parents. It is told against the backdrop of an alternately breathtaking and barren savanna, and populated with unquestionably authentic indigenous peoples.
Unfortunately, Jettel loses respect for her husband as a provider and this starts to take a toll on the marriage. Spoiled and selfish, she resorts to her womanly wiles to extract favors from anyone who can help make life easier, especially the solicitous Susskind (Matthias Habich), a better-off bachelor neighbor. Walter realizes his marriage is in crisis, but seems too weak and ashamed to protest.
(In German, Swahili and English with subtitles)
Excellent (3.5 stars)
Unrated with male and female nudity, sexual situations and adult subject matter