Tuesday, September 27, 2016

2002 Winner, Nowhere in Africa

Nowhere in Africa

Director:  Caroline Link

Distributed by:  Zeitgeist Films

Released:  November 2002

Country:  Germany

A fish-out-water movie is generally a comedy in which the main character is taken out of his comfortable surroundings and plucked into a situation that baffles and frustrates him, usually ending with the hero realizing he fits in more than he thought.  Crocodille Dundee comes to mind:  Outback nature boy goes to New York City and takes 90 minutes or so to get used to it.  But these type of films don’t have to be comedies.  In Gran Torino, for instance, Clint Eastwood, a fairly racist and closed-minded curmudgeon (“Get off my lawn!”), after spending time with his Hmong neighbors, utters, “Son of a bitch. I've got more in common with these goddamned gooks than my own spoiled-rotten family.”
Fish out of water

Nowhere in Africa is essentially a non-comedic fish-out-of-water story.  The Redlich family are well-to-do Jews living in 1938 Germany.  Walter, the father, knows to get out while the getting is good—he moves to Kenya, of all places, and gets a job farming, and soon sends for his wife and daughter.  His wife Jettel enjoys it where she is and doesn’t really want to leave; the daughter, Regina, is more game.  The fish in this story is really Jettel, who at first tries to put on a brave face living in the Dark Continent.  But it doesn’t take very long before she takes a look and smell around the place and realizes the days of crisp apple strudels and schnitzel with noodles are over.  And she’s not happy about it, either.

Owuor and Regina
Regina makes friends with Owuor, the cook, who is a native Kenyan.  Some of the bright moments of this film involve this odd couple’s friendship, and his loyalty to the Redlich family.  Owuor is about as good a friend as the Redlichs could hope for, but Jettel can’t see past the fact that he’s African.

This film is rather epic in scope—we see Regina at three different ages as she grows up during World War II.  An amusing scene involves Regina’s stay at a British boarding school, preceded by a touching one in which Regina says goodbye to a native school-age friend she made in Kenya.   

Jettel:  "Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome, C'mon in!"
But Jettel’s story is the centerpiece here.  Jettel is pretty, tough, and will do what she has to in order to survive this ordeal.  And when I say do what she has to, I mean she is prepared to use her feminine assets to survive and earn the movie its R-rating.  Juliane Köhler (who played Eva Braun in the Hitler-in-the-bunker film from 2004, Downfall), is terrific in the role.  To me, the best performances in film involve a character who changes subtly from the beginning to the end of the story—like Pacino’s Michael Corleone, changing from innocent war veteran to mafia kingpin in The Godfather, so that at the end of the movie he almost seems like a different character than at the film's start. Or perhaps a better example is Tom Cruise in Rainman, gradually transforming from selfish egoist to caring brother.  This is that kind of performance.  Watching Jettel, born with a silver spoon in her mouth, adjust to living out of her German water is what makes this movie so enjoyable.

The Nazis were rude
The Title:  Nirgendwo in Afrika.  They are, after all, trying to hide there.

The Culture:  Ever wondered what 1940 Central Africa was like?  Here you go.

Agenda Danger:  The Nazis get a lot of bad portrayals in the Best Foreign Films.  But as Mel Brooks once opined, they were very rude, so they kind of did it to themselves.

Best Picture that year:  Chicago

Rating:  8 out of 10 fishes

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