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by Jordan Hiller


Nowhere in Africa (2003)

To break down the Jewish population of Europe at the close of the second World War, and the nightmare of Nazi power, into the most pragmatic categories is to divide the group in two – those who survived and those who perished. The dead we can only “remember”, but are in every tangible sense gone and have naturally faded into the caverns of memory. Survivors, on the other hand, maintain that label “survivor” for life – the war lives with them. They will always have survived something immense, even if later on they pass away before a ripe old age.

The hunched over man who davens mincha on Erev Rosh Hashanah sixty years after the liberation of the concentration camps is still referred to as a survivor. He may have survived countless surgeries and diseases in the past sixty years, but “survivor” evokes only one very unique connotation.

The descriptive word is much like saying, “God has chosen that person for some unknown reason” or, “there goes a walking miracle.” Every survivor has a story (some left untold) that transcends the horrifying reality of the time. Survivors commonly tell of their survival by linking together innumerable awe inspiring moments. If the guard had looked in the closet. If I hadn’t lent a shovel to my Polish neighbor. If my mother hadn’t worked as a tailor. Recently, Polanski’s film The Pianist brilliantly and excruciatingly portrayed these moments with great care, and as the moments are strung together before our eyes, we can almost come to an understanding of what unearthly preciseness it takes to deliver a survivor.

Nowhere in Africa takes a remarkable route in depicting the string of moments allowing the Redlich family to be counted among the survivors. The German film tells the story of the lesser discussed survivors, yet the term “survivor” can apply to them nonetheless, however with some obvious reservation. They are those who sensed (for miraculous reasons that should not be underestimated or ignored) danger and fled European soil just before it was impossible to do so and settled anywhere on the globe that would have them.

Fortunately for the Redlich’s and for the audience of this film, they chose Kenya, Africa, to provide safe harbor until it was possible to return home. Kenya is a simply magnificent, breathtaking country and the way in which cinematographer Gernot Roll and director/writer Caroline Link film the spare, dusty landscape makes watching the two hour plus movie a visual pleasure, somewhat like a primordial dream painted in green, brown, and blue.

The family of three (father Walter, mother Jettel, and precious kinder Regina) travel to a remote farm sitting isolated on nearly barren land and are challenged to begin a new, utterly unfamiliar (Walter was a prominent lawyer in Germany), yet situationally necessary lifestyle.

Nowhere in Africa is long enough that each character is meticulously studied and developed while Link takes the time also to provide wonderfully patient, artistic moments of the European style of filmmaking. A stunningly framed scene involving a plague of locusts toward the end of the picture highlights her talents.

Each character evolves and ages over time and setting. From the initial job running the farm, to British enemy-alien camps, to Regina’s British school where she is again an outsider because of her Judaism.

Link’s writing, based on a novel by Stephanie Zweig, allows each member of the family to mature and adapt unrushed by the confines of zealous editing. Walter is a man looking to do what is right for his family – keep them alive at all costs. He also needs to be true to his aspirations to become a proper German again and he struggles with the idea that Germans have proven so irrational and inhuman. Jettel is accustomed to a privileged life and needs time to conform to the Jew who resorts to a parasitical scrapper mentality. Regina is tempted by the African way of life and grows wise beyond her years. All three are worthy of our attention and Link’s consideration for each is appreciated.

At the center of the story, although I wouldn’t call it the film’s heart (Jewish survival is the heart), there is the turbulent relationship between Walter and Jettel. In that aspect, Nowhere in Africa is the love story between a husband and wife in a chaotic and enormously oppressive environment. If so, the film works superbly on two equally ambitious levels. Not only is it a fully realized film about the grittiness of Jews desiring to live in an antagonistic world, but it is also one of the most compelling studies of marriage ever captured for the screen.

The Jewishness of the Redlichs is not always apparent. They are not particularly religious, and Regina even questions her mother about their lack of observance. The beauty of Nowhere in Africa is that we, as Jews, can relate to these people – even though we have never dug a well in Africa (or anywhere I presume), or were asked by our Principal why Jews always think about money, or witnessed a ritual where an animal is slaughtered to bring rain. We do recognize, however, what it is like to wonder why everyone has a problem with us, or how it feels to take the “safer” path just in case, or to worry about our loved ones far away who may be in mortal danger.

When Jettel appeals to the richest Jew in Kenya to provide political support, we recognize that sense of community. Help her because she is Jewish. Of course.

When an old friend of Walter visits the family on a Friday night and he makes kiddush for them, we understand the absolute, deeply emotional beauty of the experience. God has brought us here by some unexplainable twist of fate and here we are, standing under the deep African star-filled sky, with the sounds of a thousand creatures crowding the night, as our parents are being forced into Ghettos thousands of miles away, and we chant, “Ki vanu vacharta, v’otanu kidashta…mikol ha’amim.” Now we can begin to comprehend our survival.


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