After taking a well-deserved four-month break from 10YA, Erik Jaccard returns with a second look at the 2003 winner for Best Foreign Language Film as filtered through his own interest in Africa and its portrayal on film.
Nirgendwo in Afrika (Nowhere in Africa)
Adapted for the screen and directed by Caroline Link
Hello again to my 10ya readers. This, the first of nine reviews I have scheduled for 2013, is intended to be something of an anomaly for me insofar as it is being squeezed into a very condensed block of available time: 90 minutes. As in, I literally have 90 minutes—and not a minute more—in which to get this done. Scandalous, I know. Generally I give myself about 900 minutes and my re-views end up totaling something like eight single-spaced pages. As much fun as that undoubtedly is from time to time, it ain’t going to happen here today. So, this is going to be more like a timed test, a written exam, a therapy session, or a brief psychosis. Take your pick.
What is most notable about my recent re-viewing of Caroline Link’s Nowhere in Africa (original titleNirgendwo in Afrika) is that I originally had very little to say about it. I remember watching it on DVD sometime in 2003 and thinking that it was an interesting story of a European family escaping oppression and battling against all odds to stay together in the face of adversity. And I’m sure this is the general idea that the filmmakers had when they set about adapting Stefanie Zweig’s 1998 autobiographical novel of the same name. It’s certainly the easiest and most superficial reading of the material and its presentation, mainly because it fits so cleanly in amongst all the other stories of Africa (mainly white, mainly European) that have made visible splashes in the public consciousness (Sydney Pollock’s Academy Award-winning Out of Africabeing probably the most notable). Because of this, I let Nowhere in Africa slip through my fingers back then, unable as I was to resort to alternative frameworks for understanding the larger dramas it attempts to unfold. The film became for me simply another unproblematic rendering of European history set against an exotic backdrop. I appreciated it for its dramatic content and this seemingly incidental setting, but nothing more.
The colossal difference between my 2003 and 2013 viewings is that, in the interim I have become a scholar of some things African (mostly literature) and a fan of most things African (sports, culture, the occasional political triumph). This has actually made quite a difference in how I view Euro-American treatments of Africa on film, many of which ultimately do nothing more than rehearse a litany of clichés, half-truths, or outright lies about Africa and Africans, relegating the latter to caricatures or, worse, to mute, exotic backdrop for the exploits of white adventurism. In thinking of this briefly, and given his recent passing, it is fitting to revisit the late Chinua Achebe’s famous objection to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, one of the most famous ‘African’ novels in the history of ‘English Literature.’ For the uninitiated, I offer a brief recap:
Heart of Darkness, for those who have not read it (or seen Apocalypse Now), is nominally the story of a sailor named Marlow, who voyages to the African jungle (in reality, the fin de siècle Belgian Congo) in the employ of a European ivory trading company. While there he learns of an enigmatic and hugely successful trader named Kurtz, who has taken up station deep in the jungle and has, as the European saying goes, ‘gone native.’ Of course, Heart of Darkness is more than this story; it is also quite clearly an attack on European imperialism, albeit one couched in careful and reserved terms. For Achebe, however, Conrad’s novella offers only an “image of Africa,” and a one-dimensional, stereotypical, and racist one at that. It is “the purveyor of comforting myths” of white superiority, a romantic repetition of the same imperial ideology it seeks to critique. In the text’s purview all of Africa is the dark, bestial flipside to European enlightenment and civility, its people mute, frenzied beasts whose primary role is to either reaffirm European power or, at the very most, prove to Europeans that, deep down, we are all savages. My favorite moment in Achebe’s caustic rebuttal to Conrad and his acolytes occurs when he, speaking of the Marlow-Kurtz drama, asks why nobody has thus far “[seen] the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind.” This criticism, which can be very difficult for a white Westerner to register, is the one easiest to incorporate into a discussion of Euro-American films that take Africa as a setting, simply because it takes a concept we’re all familiar with—props—and asks one to consider what it might feel like to see themselves turned into an degraded instrument for the telling of someone else’s story.
Most ‘African’ films made in Hollywood about Americans or Europeans in Africa tend to rehearse some version of this ideology, relegating Africa and Africans to any of the varieties of the more recent, post-independence stereotypes. It is a land of dictatorship, poverty, disease, chaos, and squalor—the modern man-made catastrophe par excellence—turned to the role of a prop for the development of white heroes, the coming together or falling apart of white couples, or the triumph of European ‘democracy’ (linked, of course, to its ‘European’ origin, without which, we are to understand, it could never have occurred). Thus, since 2003 it has become very, very difficult for me to watch films ‘about’ or set in Africa without measuring them against a very exacting set of criteria which attempts to take all of this into account. In 2013, however, I’m happy to report that I found that film has actually become more, rather than less complex and that this drastically improved my viewing experience the second time round.
Given my time constraint, I’d like to work through my re-view with one major concept in mind: family, and particularly family as a mode of belonging. As most of us know from personal experience, family is one of the many relational poles against which we define ourselves. Even those who attempt this self-definition negatively, against, rather than within their family, or who seek out and find alternative forms of familial belonging, the group still exerts a massive influence on our self-knowledge. What’s more, ‘family’ is a loose word, with flexible connotations. Its tentacles reach beyond the interpersonal and influence larger group identities of which we are a part, be they national, regional, religious, cultural, ‘sub’-cultural, or what have you.
This is perhaps the most obvious conceptual apparatus to reach for when watching the film, mostly because it is closest at hand. Nowhere in Africa tells the story of the Redlich family, German Jews who fled Nazi persecution in 1938 by emigrating to Kenya as political refugees. Torn apart by violence and prejudice in their homeland, the Redlichs spend the greater part of the film attempting to come back together as a family with the help of Africa, whose land and people play the role of surrogate to each at various moments. Like the novel, the film unfolds from the perspective of Regina Redlich (Lea Kurka/Karoline Eckertz), the only child of Walter (Merab Ninidze) and Jettel (Juliane Köhler). For Regina, whose immediate family is her entire world, the move to Kenya is a major upheaval and one that isolates and emphasizes the various shifts that world undergoes. In terms of Regina’s life this means a number of things. One is the multiple fracturing of her immediate family, marital strife between Walter and Jettel, the stability of whose bourgeois roles as husband/man and wife/woman are thrown into doubt by the vagaries of their exile, and most importantly the expansion of her family to include various African figures in relation to whom her identity forms over the course of the film. As she lets us know early on, she never ‘knew’ Germany, and therefore never ‘knew’ herself as German in the same way as her parents. Regina’s self-knowledge instead derives from her incorporation into the much larger familial drama of her life as a Jewish German immigrant on a Kenyan farm in a British colony during World War II. Indeed, one of the more touching sub-narratives of the film as a whole is Regina’s relatively rapid integration into life on the farm, where she quickly and painlessly (as only children can) learns Swahili and rather painlessly incorporates herself into the living culture of the farm and its environs (the scene where she and a native Kenyan child share how awesome it is to warm their feet by standing in a fresh cow pie is particularly amusing—and gross). As a mind still in formation, she retains little in the way of the cultural obstacles that otherwise detain her parents, who think of themselves, to varying degrees, as “European,” “cultured,” “civilized,” and therefore superior to their native Kenyan neighbors, despite their connection through social and political marginality. For the well-intentioned Redlichs, whose liberal gentleness sets them apart from the belligerent Kenyan settler colonists among whom they take shelter, these neighbors remain ‘family’, but with a difference—being black, African, and apparently ‘uncivilized,’ they stand just a peg or two down the ladder. As an arbiter of the fluid, working definition of ‘family’ then, Regina comes to pose as the progressive foil to her parents’ stubborn resistance to adapt these categories that would otherwise define their relationship to each other and the greater world.
Were the film to focus solely on the disintegrating relationship between Walter and Jettel, it would likely turn into yet another gloomy postwar presentation of European barbarism and debasement, highlighting how savage a couple can be, and how that relationship mimics the barbarity of the society from and within which it arises. In this, one could easily see a forming and oversimplified duality that would group the adults on the debased side of a Blakean distinction between innocence and experience, where Germany/Europe, adulthood, the future, civilization, even whiteness, were all degraded forms of experience opposed to an idealized innocence to be found in noble Africa. [I want to stop here and recognize that this film, because itdoes make this point—that the experience of Europeans under fascist rule is very similar to that of the native African in his own colonized homeland—accomplishes way more than most. Most would not even stoop to recognize that, as Aimé Césaire put it in Discourse on Colonialism (1950), Nazi barbarism is just industrialized European colonialism applied to white Europeans (and that it is all the more shocking because of this).] Yet, because the narrative is told from Regina’s more hybridized perspective, the film allows us to move back and forth across the opposition between innocence and experience, civilization and savagery, dark and light, dirty and clean, European and African. This is important, because it at least attempts to move us beyond a new stable, static state of affairs (Europeans bad, Africans good, whereas before it was vice versa). The film is very clear in its overturning of the old distinctions, such that most of what happens in Kenya becomes a much saner and more human version of “the horror” playing itself out across Europe (even the ritual slaughter of a goat, while violent, is juxtaposed to the mass slaughter of Jews we do not see, but which we know to be happening). But because she carries with her no prejudices towards either ‘Europe’ or ‘Africa,’ Regina’s maturing perspective is the wisest and most socially progressive. It first recognizes no differences between human beings (in contrast to her parents) only to later appreciate those differences as constitutive components of a greater whole. One would think that the reason she is able to recognize them as such is because they are constitutive components of her own whole, her own perspective, and her own expanding (and functional) definition of what it means to be a family.
In fact, this time around I realized that one of the film’s great successes is the way it uses Regina as a narrator to counterbalance the dramatic relationship between her parents. Less skillfully handled, this situation might have come off precisely as Achebe argued it does in Heart of Darkness, as a European product in which Africa plays exotic background prop to the disintegration of one petty European marriage. However, because the film maintains a productive balance between Regina the narrator and Regina the character, this easy ‘out’ becomes a much harder sell. As a narrator, Regina’s intermittent intrusions into the film’s fabric dramatically inflect how we encounter and understand the larger frame of reference that would otherwise make of her only a marginal cast member. Indeed, it is the ease with which Regina integrates into her new Kenyan society that emphasizes her parents’ inability to follow suit and her effortless understanding of, and ability to negotiate between differences that underlines her mother’s final conclusion that “what I’ve learned here is how valuable differences are.” At first differences are something the Redlichs try and forget, wanting nothing more than to be identified by some larger social family category, ‘German’ or ‘European,’ but not ‘Jewish.’ One likes to think that is only by learning to respect the local ‘difference’ into which they slowly integrate that they are able to see the problematic fissures in their traditional understanding of what it means to be ‘German’ or ‘European.’ In learning how their traditional attitudes towards Africans relegates and confines the latter to symbolic ghettoes, they are able to understand how that attitude, applied to Jews, translates into the same result. And I suppose my argument here is that, as a film, Regina’s narration is essential to this conclusion reaching the viewer.
[Running out of time!]
The film ultimately concludes with the promise that because we are all different, and differences are valuable, we are all, therefore, equally human in some grand, global sense of the word. This is a nice conclusion and a perfectly sensible, true moral. But the problem with flattening every human being down to their essentially similar elements is that, while it makes for a nice myth and a very instructive primer on how to think about one’s own being in the world, it does not change the fact that the world is not divided equally amongst human beings of similar stature. It’s nice to think of Africans as being ‘just as good as we are’ because, after all, it’s true. But the world is not structured in such a way as to make it a reality on a grand scale. The reality, unfortunately, is that Africans, like many living in the global south, remain at a greater risk for suffering, violence, and inhumanity simply because of where they are born. Without unintentionally creating a hierarchy of suffering, it’s hard to say that this has been more true than of Africa, which has witnessed unprecedented levels of human misery in the twentieth century and beyond (and before). The Redlichs, because of their place of origin, the color of their skin, and the relative prestige accorded to their status/education/culture, can leave Kenya and return to Germany to find new lives as fully human German citizens. As one of their native Kenyan neighbors had previously put it, their homeland will always be there waiting for them, and waiting to reabsorb them into a European structure. This, too, is a nice thought. But ultimately, though Regina has taught us that there are many productive ways of thinking about family and belonging, the film does eventually seem to come back around to that tricky problem Achebe articulates. IsNowhere in Africa just another excuse for us to watch Europeans arrive at self-congratulatory truths about themselves while set against the stunning backdrop of the African plains? I haven’t been able to decide in the 90 minutes I allotted to myself to think this out. That, however, is one of the problems of timed writing. Ten years on, this film, while hardly perfect, still makes for an engaging story set (at the very worst) inrelation to Africa, rather than merely ‘in’ it (like one can be ‘in’ a theme park). It poses important historical questions and does so while embedding them in an engaging enough family drama. I suppose I shouldn’t really be asking for much more than that, at least not in 120 minutes of film.
Thoughts of a random, scattered, or ‘free-floating’ variety were less generous in coming this time around. I’m not sure if it’s because my mind was particularly ‘grounded’ during this re-viewing or if I was simply distracted. Whatever the reason, there’s less coming your way than normal. I promise to rectify this oversight in my June review of John Singleton’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, which will be a ‘holy shitballs!’ kind of amazing. I promise. Anyway,
- I think it must be because the emotional tenor of the story is channeled through Regina’s narration and not that of either of her parents, but I always feel so safe when the family’s native Kenyan cook, Owuor, is on screen. For Regina he is a de facto parental figure, a visual representation of the continent’s parental surrogacy. He’s not protective in a stolid, ‘no-one-will-get-past-me’ kind of way, but rather in a very gentle and doting, yet nonetheless paternalistic and watchful manner. As with the character, so with the actor cast to play him, Sidede Onyulo, who gleams with warmth, respectability, and tenderness throughout.
- I found the camerawork in this film to be, at times, unnecessarily jumpy, affected, and, frankly, annoying. Neither the slow motion work, nor the sudden close-ups are particularly effective, if their point is to emphasize drama and/or register individual emotion. The extended montage of slow-motion frenzy that characterizes the film’s penultimate scene is particularly unnecessary, I think. Why not show the family and their now-normalized Kenyan compatriots swatting and burning away locusts in real time? Nothing seemed added by the slowdown and there was certainly nothing gained.
- For a European film about Africa, Nowhere in Africa does a pretty solid job of not overusing what we have come to think of as ‘traditional African film’ music (or, more accurately, the music of films about Europeans playing out their own little dramas against an African backdrop). However, there are moments when we’re meant to read Regina’s interactions with Owuor as ostensibly tender and innocent and childlike, and both the slow-mo shots accompanying these moments, as well as the chirpy background score, really got my goat. Perhaps I am too enamored with subtlety, but this felt a little too much like being hit over the head with sweetness. Bonked with love, you might say.
- At first I was nonplussed at why they would translate the German into English subtitles but not the Swahili, thinking that this was either someone’s colossally lazy oversight and/or the magic of cultural imperialism at work. It was only later when I realized, to my chagrin, that the Swahili would in fact be translated, but only when our German protagonists had themselves begun to understand it (first Regina, then Walter, then, grudgingly, Jettel). This has the effect of placing one in the same disorienting situation as the Redlichs themselves, particular the two parents, whose resistance to Africa in its various manifestations derives from their initial inability to decolonize their own minds.
- In a certain light, and from a certain angle, Juliane Köhler (Jettel) looks a heck of a lot like Juliette Binoche.
- Ok, the German pronunciation of ‘Regina’ just sounds nicer than the English one. Really.