Nirgendwo in Afrika (Nowhere in Africa) (2001)

 

 

 

 

Director:    Caroline Link.

Starring:     Juliane Khler (Jettel Redlich),  Merab Ninidze (Walter Redlich),  Sidede Onyulo (Owuor),  Matthias Habich (Walter Skind),  Lea Kurka (Regina Redlich, younger),  Karoline Eckertz (Regina Redlich,older),  Gerd Heinz (Max),  Hildegard Schmahl (Ina),  Maritta Horwarth (Liesel),  Regine Zimmermann (Kthe).

German with English Subtitles

In the 1930s, shortly before the Second World War, a Jewish refugee family emigrate from Germany to Kenya to run a farm.  Not everyone in the family is happy about their new life in Kenya, but there is no going back to Germany as Herr Hitler increases his totalitarian control to take Germany to war.  In one sense they are "stranded" in Kenya and are forced by circumstances to make adjustments to the new way of life , including adjustments within the family.

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

A young Kenyan rides a bike a long ways to deliver a message. 

Flashback.  Regina Redlich is the young daughter of a Jewish refugee family living now in Kenya.  She thinks back upon the days when she and her family lived in Germany.  Her father is a former lawyer in Germany and is named Walter.  Her mother's name is Jettel.  What Regina remembers mostly about Germany is being afraid.  Aunt Kthe was her mother's sister and her Aunt Liesl was her father's sister.  Grandfather owned a hotel known as the Adler in Sohrau.  Of course, this was before the arrival to power of the Nazis.  A boy playing in the snow knocks Jettel down and a young boy with a Nazi armband tries to help her get up, but she shakes her head no that she doesn't need any help.  The Nazis stopped Walter from working in his profession and took away grandfather's hotel.  Soon no one in the family held a job.

Back to the present.  The young boy still rides his bike to deliver the message.  He gives the message to a Jewish refugee named  Skind.  He puts the boy's bike in his car and drives the boy back.  The message was that Walter is very sick.   Skind gives Walter some quinine. 

Breslau, January 1938.  The Redlichs are having a party at their place.  Jettel opens the door to their apartment to let some guests in.  The Nazi boy from the sledding area says hello to her, but the boy's mother tells her son not to talk to Jews.  Regina is being teased by the other children because she is afraid to touch a dachshund.  She pulls back and then runs out of the room.  A boy comments:  "You wanna go to Africa?  You're even afraid to touch a dachshund." 

Regina runs to her grandfather Max who sits on the couch speaking with others.  Jettel gets a letter from Walter from Rongai, Kenya dated December 2, 1937.  He writes that the Jewish Community in Nairobi has agreed to pay the costs of her and Regina's immigration.  He has now been in Kenya for six months and is anxious for his wife and daughter to come to Kenya immediately.  He asks her to bring a refrigerator with her.  He suggests that if more room is needed, she can throw out the Rosenthal china.  He asks her to bring a number of other needed things. 

 Skind tells Walter that he has malaria.  He has to leave so he tells the Kenyan servant Owuor to be sure and give Walter his medicine. 

Jettel tells grandfather Max that they must be going or they will miss the train.  Grandfather says this thing with the Nazis will all be over in a year or two.  He asks Jettel to promise that she will stick it out with Walter.   Jettel nods yes.  He says his son loves her very much.  He philosophizes that the one who loves more in a relationship is always more vulnerable (and that would be Walter).  Waiting on the street outside, Regina shouts for her mother to come down. 

An elderly Kenyan man brings Owuor some native medicine and Owuor prepares a soup of it and feeds it to Walter.  Walter speaks to Owuor in German, but Owuor just laughs because he can't understand a word he says.  Owuor starts teaching Walter how to speak his Kenyan language.  Walter gets better and comes out of his small home that looks like it's in the middle of nowhere.  He works for a Mr. Morrison who owns the cattle farm where Walter works. 

Jettel and Regina are on a ship. 

Walter gives Owuor his German judicial robe. 

The narrator Regina says that they traveled six weeks by steamship around Africa to Kenya.  They arrived in Nairobi on April 20, 1938, Hitler's birthday.  Mr. Morrison is there to pick them up.  All he says to Jettel and Regina is welcome.  He takes a suitcase and carries it for them.  Regina remembers what her mother told her aboard ship.  They are poor now and can't expect chocolate treats, for there's no chocolate for poor kids. 

Driving the two Germans to Walter, Mr. Morrison stops to complain about a dead cow.  His men tell him it died from lack of water.  There's a real problem with the lack of water in the area. When they arrive at the house, Walter runs to hug and kiss his wife.  Owuor goes to the car to lift Regina out.  She runs to her father to greet him.  Mr. Morrison repeats his basic message: water, they need water, Walter has to dig a well to get water. 

Jettel tells her husband that the area is beautiful, but they can't live here.  She even tells Owuor not to unpack the china, because they won't be here long.  Owuor starts teaching her his language, but she just tells him that if he wants to talk to her, he must speak German.  Owuor does not like her because of what he sees as her bad attitude.  Jettel takes a shower which is located outside in a rickety shower area.  She gets out of the shower with her big bath robe around her and runs right into  Skind.  He introduces himself and she invites him to dinner.  He has just come back from a long journey through the desert to bring back supplies.  He brought onions, sugar and cigarettes.  Skind left Germany in 1933.  He has never been married.  He says:  "It was always my bad luck to fall in love with women who were already taken." 

At night Walter tries to cuddle with his wife, but she pushes him away.  Walter asks her why she didn't bring the refrigerator, but did bring the china?  She says there wasn't enough money anyway.  Why? asks her husband.  Because she bought a very expensive night gown at Wertheim's in Breslau.  Walter is stunned by her frivolous behavior.  The next morning  Skind leaves. 

Owuor shows Regina Mount Kenya in the distance.  Regina says she can't go past the ridge.  So she stops there and looks while Owuor plays with his six children by three wives.  Later in the day Jettle, while planting potatoes in her garden, asks Owuor for some help.  He tells her in Kenyan that he is a cook  -- he doesn't dig in the ground.  It finally dawns on Jettel that if she is going to be able to communicate with the natives, she will have to learn their language.  Owuor takes her down to where she can get some water for her garden.  There are many native women and children already by the small well.  Jettel asks Owuor for help with the heavy water cans, but Owuor as a man can't do that job, but when he sees Jettel struggling with the water cans, he relents and carries the water can.  And does he ever get laughed at and teased by the women who call out to Owuor for help with their water containers. 

Walter supervises the digging of a well and he shovels some himself.  Regina hangs out with Owuor and learns the language.  Walter calls off the digging for there is no water in the hole they dug. 

Six months later.  Jettel is tried of the hard life in Kenya.  And she wants some meat to eat at dinner time for a change.  A brush fire breaks out, but Owuor and Walter are not worried.  The vegetation is very sparse and the fire will never reach the house.  Jettel goes in the house to pack and leave.  She says she wants to go home to see her mother and sister and people whose language she can understand.  Jettel complains that her husband earns almost nothing and they will never have enough money to send Regina to school.  She really goes overboard saying that sometimes she feels like she is dead and other times wishes she were.  Walter keeps saying that they are lucky to be alive.  He says last night the Nazis burned down synagogues and looted Jewish shops.  Walter heard the news from a Swiss radio station.  He ends with:  "The Nazis no longer see us as human beings.  Damn it!  I saw it coming!"  Now Jettel worries about her family back in Germany and what has become of them.  Walter shouts in fruition that he doesn't know.  He adds that he virtually begged them to leave Germany. 

Walter writes a letter to his father dated November 10, 1938.  He begs his father to get out of Germany. 

Owuor catches a baby antelope of some kind and gives it to Regina to raise.  Regina takes the baby animal.  Mother lectures Regina about not getting to close to the natives.  She doesn't want her to eat any of their food or go into their huts.  Regina asks her mother to come to a rain making ceremony where the villagers will slaughter a lamb and ask their god Ngai for rain.  She tells her mother not to worry about her and runs out.  Owuor shows her the slaughter of a sheep by the village elders.  Regina hides her face at the moment of death. 

Early in the morning Owuor rushes into the bedroom to tell Jettle that her husband is out hunting with the gun.  She runs out and sees Walter bring down an antelope, but doesn't kill it.  He has to shoot it two more times and then the native guide has to go over and shoot it in the head to put it out of its misery.  Walter is mad at Jettle for making him kill an antelope just to give her "your damn meat!"  Neither of them eat the meat, but Owuor and Regina do eat it. 

At night Wakter complains that his wife treats him like a leper.  He says she only lets him under her skirt when he's a lawyer.  He says he has no chance in the desert.  Walter tells Jettle that she has no God-given right to a privileged life.  He tells her to stop playing the part of the spoiled daughter.  He is leaving to go to the bar.  Before going he says:  ". . . the way you treat Owuor reminds me of some people in Germany to whom you certainly don't want to be compared!" 

Regina plays with some of the native children.  She sees a small, stray dog and asks if someone owns it?  No.  She asks her father if she can keep it and he says yes.  They name it Rummler.  Dad teaches Regina a dance.  One morning Regina searches for her little antelope and finds it has been eaten by some wild creature.  She runs to Owuor for some sympathy but right now he is shouting about the trucks that are coming fast to the house. 

The British arrest Walter.   Skind has also been arrested and is in the back of a truck with other Germans.  War has broken out and the Germans will be interned.  As Walter is taken away, he yells to Owuor to watch his wife and child.  Owuor shouts that he will.  A little later the German women and children are rounded up.  A British soldier whose mother is German helps Jettle into the truck.  Regina is sad to leave Owuor and Rummler behind.

As narrator, Regina says they didn't understand why the British wanted to lock them up.  After all, they were Jews and certainly not likely to side with Hitler.  The men live in big tents.  The women and children, however, are put up in a luxurious hotel.  It is to luxurious that Jettel really enjoys it.  Now she can eat first-rate food and wear nice dresses.  She lives with her friend and child in a very nice hotel room.  It's like they are on vacation.  At dinner Jettel talks about their wonderful life in Breslau.  It turns one of the women off and she leaves saying:  "Before emigration every jerk was a prince." 

The German-speaking British soldier is taking a great deal of interest in Jettel, who does not write a note to her husband when the British provide for this opportunity.  Walter talks to  Skind about his problems with Jettel.  He says Jettel refuses to accept reality.  He wants a mature woman, one that he can talk to.  The woman who made the jerk comment tells Jettle that instead of complaining she should be trying to get her husband out of the internment camp.  She tells the Jewish women to write a letter to the Jewish Community in Nairobi asking for help.  The Jews in Nairobi relatively easily convinced the British that the Jews are never going to side with Hitler.  So now the women and children get to visit their husbands/fathers. 

Regina is very happy to see her daddy.  Walter tells Jettel that they can't go back to the farm.  Morrison fired him because he now sees Walter as an enemy alien.  They have no work and no home.  Regina cries.  Jettel goes to speak to British headquarters to ask for a special permission.  But she can't communicate to the officer there.  So the German-speaking British soldiers helps her again.  She needs permission to meet with Edward Rubens, the head of the Jewish Community in Nairobi.  She gets the permission.

She meets with Mr. and Mrs. Rubens.  She asks Mr. Rubens to help her husband find a job because without one he cannot get out of the camp.  This offends Rubens who scolds her for coming to him with something so petty.  He tells her to make something out of her opportunities here in Kenya!  Rubens is so sharp with her, that his own wife is shocked.  Her husband, however, still says he just can't help Jettel.  He gets up and leaves. 

Back in her hotel room, the British soldier is waiting for her.  He likes her a great deal and offers her a deal.  He will help her husband with a job in return for sexual favors.  Jettel accepts the offer by accepting his further advances.  A problem is that her daughter, playing outside, sees this.  Naturally, the little girl is very upset. 

One afternoon, Walter surprises Jettel with a visit.  He asks Jettel how she did it?  He's out.  Jettel says nothing.  She apparently got both her husband and  Skind out of the internment camp.  They move to a new home that is larger than their previous home.  Jettel says they are so far away from Skind's place that she fears he will not be able to visit them.   Skind says he'd drive a lot farther than 20 miles to see her.  In the field Walter flirts with his wife.  He asks her to walk down the path like the topless black women of Kenya.  But then he runs to her and grabs her face hard and asks her in a nasty way:  "Did you miss me in your hotel?"  He turns around and leaves. 

A Kenyan native neighbor comes over to talk with Walter.  He tells him that Walter will need his help.  Walter says he would be happy to have his help.  Walter tells the Kenyan that the owner of the farm Gibson went into the military and he asked him (Walter) to run the farm.  Regina plays with the native children.  They let her use the bow and arrow. 

A letter arrives from Sohrau dated October 2, 1940.  It is from Walter's dad.  He writes that it is impossible for them to emigrate now.  The borders are closing and they have nothing to sell for cash.  He says the Jews are to be sent to ghettoes and now, for the first time in his life, he is afraid. 

The family is going to send Regina to school because now they can afford it.  One night Rummler shows up.  Walter picks the dog up, looks around for Owuor and finds him.  Regina runs out of the house to welcome Owuor and Rummler.  Owuor becomes the cook for the family.  Regina reads a story from a book to the Kenyan children.  They act out a play based on what they read.  Regina plays the part of the wicked witch. 

Regina has to tell her closest friend that she is leaving for school.  He has her swear that she will come back.  The whole family wait for the school "bus" to pick up Regina.  Mother cries and Regina tells her that she will be back for vacation.  At school everyone wears a uniform.  When the Christian Lord's Prayer is spoken, the Jewish kids have to sit down on a bench at the side of the auditorium.  Regina doesn't like playing sports.  Luckily, her best friend doesn't like sports either. 

Without Regina, some days Jettel doesn't even want to get up.  And why even bother to get dressed when no one notices her anyway?  She asks Walter if he still finds her attractive and he says she has her great moments.  Walter asks her, if she could, would she leave?  She gives no answer, but just wonders if there could have been a happier way of life for her.  Walter tells his wife that he does love her and would like to work things out with her.  Jettle only says that she misses her mother and sister.  Walter walks away from her in disgust. 

Regina is set to go on vacation.  The principal of the school asks her why she learns so fast and well.  Regina answers that her family has no money and she cannot afford to waste the school money by not learning.  She tells him:  "We are Germans, but no Nazis."  He lets her go on holiday.  The school bus lets her off at the place where she was picked up.  She is so happy to see Owuor.  Soon she is with her friend.  She takes off her blouse like the Kenyan women and climbs up a tree with her friend. 

Jettel receives a letter.  Her mother and sister are being sent to Poland.  They ask that Jettel not forget them.  The message is brief because the Germans only allowed them 20 words.  Jettel is very upset.  Regina goes back to school.  At night Jettel says that maybe her relatives have found a way out via Poland.  Walter tells her:  "Poland means death."  Jettel screams no and slaps Walter hard across the face.  Walter says that at least she knows where her relatives are!

The radio blares the message that the Germans have lost 400,000 men killed or captured since the start of the winter offensive in the Soviet Union. 

One day Jettel sees an old woman who has laid herself out to die.  Thinking about her own mother, she rushes to help the woman.  She cries and cries even though the Kenyans assure her that this is their way and their mother has chosen to die. 

 Skind arrives at the farm to tell Walter that they are restructuring the troops in Kenya and now they are taking Germans into the British army.  Walter is happy about the news.  He has wanted to fight against the Nazis.   Skind will not fight.  He says he has nothing to do with Germany.  Walter will be going to Nairobi, but Jettle tells him that she is staying here with Owuor.  So Walter has to go to Nairobi by himself.  She runs the farm herself with the help of the native who helped her husband. 

Now that there is only Owuor to talk to, Jettel gets to know him much better.  She can speak his language now.   In the morning Skind walks into her room and sits on the bed.  She awakens and smiles at him.  He asks her if she wants to go for a drive and she says yes.  They go to the large Lake Bogoria which has a a lot of birds.   Skind tells her that D-day has taken place.  She throws her arms around his neck and kisses him.  He says:  "Don't do this to me."  So she lets him go.  But as he walks she throws her arms around his neck again and walks while hanging onto his neck.. 

The couple arrives home late, after it's dark.  Regina is angry with her mother and won't let mom touch her.  She walks out.  Mother follows her and Regina asks her why didn't she go to Nairobi with her father?  She adds:  "You don't love him anymore."  Mom says  Skind only took her out for the drive.  Regina answers:  "Don't you think I was aware of what happened at the (Hotel) Norfolk?  You had an affair with that soldier."  Mom answers that the soldier got them this job and home.  Regina asks her what  Skind can do for her?  Mom slaps Regina's face.  Regina runs away.

The following day Regina is still not at home.  Mom starts searching everywhere.  She finally goes to the village.  Mother knocks on the door of the friend's home and finds Regina.  On the walk home Regina says that she has spend the night with her friend and his mother many times.  She just never told her mother.  She would always be home before sunrise so as not to make her mother suspicious.  Mom tells her to never do that again. 

Regina asks her mother to go with her tonight to the Pokots who are celebrating a big ngoma.  There will be beef, beer and singing.  Mother, dressed in that fancy dress she brought with her, goes to the ceremony with her daughter. 

May 9, 1945.  Victory in Europe.  The Germans have surrendered.  At this moment Walter comes home.  Jettel goes out to him and they kiss.  A little later they have sex.  Then he tells his wife about his father and Liesl.  Dad was beaten to death by two SS men November 17, 1942.  While fleeing, his sister married a Czech, a truck driver.  She was taken to Belsec in the third transport.  No one returned alive.  The next morning Walter has to leave.  He is still in the army. 

Walter receives a letter from Wiesbaden, dated November 4, 1946.  It is an acceptance letter for his request for a position in the Justice Department of Hesse.  He will be a judge at the Frankfurt District Court.  At the movies there is newsreel footage of the Nazi trials.  Goering has been sentenced to be hanged. 

Walter goes to visit his daughter at school.  He asks for his daughter's help because he wants to return to Germany.  He asks her to promise him that she will not be sad when they go back to Germany.  She asks if Owuor could come with them.  Dad says:  "Not this time."  A tear rolls down the cheeks of Regina. 

Walter goes home and asks Owuor where his wife is and he says she is out in the fields with  Skind.  Walter now asks how many times have the two of them been together?  Owuor just bows his head and says nothing.  Walter gets in his car and drives out to the fields.  He sees the two of them together.  At dinner Walter snaps at  Skind.  He tells his wife he is going back to Germany. She asks why he didn't consult her and Regina?  He says that he has already talked to Regina.  Jettle walks out of the house.   Skind starts to object too and Walter tells him it's none of his business.  He adds:  "You're not going to destroy my family!"   Skind walks out.  He tells Jettle that she could come and live with him.  Jettle smiles, but says nothing. 

Regina sets the table outside.  It's the new year eve for 1947.  After dinner Regina falls asleep.  Owuor picks her up and takes her to her bed.  Jettle still says she is not going back to Germany.  Walter asks her if she is ready to give up on their family?  She ignores that question and asks how can he want to go back to that country?  He says Kenya saved their lives, but it is not their country. 

In the middle of the night Regina goes to Owuor's place to talk to him about Germany.  She falls to sleep besides him.  Dad has packed his bag and is ready to leave.  Regina tells him that mama needs his help.  Dad says she has managed without him.  He starts driving away.  But as he does he and others notice that locusts are starting to arrive.  He stops his truck, turns around and goes out into the fields to fight the locusts.  The entire village empties out to go fight the locusts.  They bang on pots and pans and swat at the locusts with towels and such.  Jettel spots her husband in the fields fighting against the locusts.  They locusts start leaving the fields and everyone shouts in triumph. 

Dad kisses Regina good night.  He goes to sleep in his bed.  He is awakened by his wife who is kissing him all over.  They have sex.  And now she tells him that she is pregnant.  "From me?" asks the father and mother says:  "You bet!"  He tells his wife he doesn't want to lose her.  In the early morning Regina comes in and slips in between her parents.  She falls asleep. 

The Kenyans cook up a big pot of locusts.  Dad tells Regina that her mother is pregnant.  And now he tells his wife that he cannot leave Kenya without her.  She asks him:  "Do you love me?"  He answers: "If you let me."  She then responds:  "Then you decide for us." 

A British officer speaks with Walter about being demobbed back to Germany.  The officer asks Walter if he likes the English and he says:  "They saved my life.  I will never forget that."    Walter and his family get assigned to a ship going to England. 

Walter comes out to tell Owuor to tell Regina goodbye.  As he pleads with the Kenyan, Regina comes up and tells her father that Owuor has to go on his long safari with Rummler or else his heart will dry up.  Owuor gives the black robe back to Walter.  Owuor starts to leave.  Regina asks him to pick her up once again as he did when they first met.  He does so and says to her quietly:  "Take care of bwana.  He is still like a child.  You are wise.  You must show him the way!"  He leaves with Rummler.

Regina and her family get on the train.   Skind sees them off.  The train crosses the vast landscape of Kenya.  As narrator, Regina says that her brother was born June 6, 1947.  Her parents named him Max after dad's father. 

 

Good movie.  If you ever thought that becoming a refugee can't be that bad, this film will cure you of that.  Emigration to Kenya from Germany is very difficult for Jettle, wife of Walter and mother of daughter Regina.  But Jettle's difficulties are multiplied by her being a spoiled child.  She is selfish, self-centered, a poor wife, a compromised mother, an adulteress, a racist and someone who pushes the servants around.  To me she was so bad that I didn't like her and felt very bad for her husband and daughter.  And the husband did not handle the situation well at all.  He never really set his wife down and asked her the important questions until he found out exactly what she was up to and what she wanted.  He never really questions her enough to figure out whether he should leave her or stay with her.  Like he says himself, he doesn't know her well enough to answer the question.  There is trouble in the main relationship, but it is partly made up for by very close relationship between the daughter and their Kenyan servant Owuor and vice-versa.   

Despite the bad relationship between husband and wife, the movie was very interesting because of the beautiful landscapes of Kenya and the interesting cultural interactions with the Kenyan natives.  The acting was good all around. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 


Historical Background:

 

(see The Flame Trees of Thika (1982) for the historical background)

 

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