This Distracted Globe random header image

Genuineness That Can’t Be Bought

September 23rd, 2009 · 3 Comments

Nowhere in Africa, 2001, poster Nowhere in Africa DVD

Nowhere In Africa (2001)
Screenplay by Caroline Link, based on the novel by Stefanie Zweig
Directed by Caroline Link
Produced by Constantin Film/ MTM Cineteve/ Bavaria Film International/ Media Cooperation One
Running time: 141 minutes

So, What’s This About?

In January 1938, Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze) lies stricken with malaria in a remote farmhouse in Rongai, Kenya. A lawyer disbarred from practice in his native Germany because he is a Jew, Walter is nursed back to health by a benevolent Luo cook named Owuor (Sidede Onyulo) and a neighboring farmer named Susskind (Matthias Habich), a Jew who had the foresight to make his exodus from Germany when emigrants could still get out with their money. Walter urgently sends for his pampered wife Jettel (Juliane Köhler) and 6-year-old daughter Regina (Lea Kurka) to flee their home in Leobschütz and join him at the arid farm he does his best to manage.

Regina bonds with Owuor and immerses herself in the customs of her new home. Her mother rejects the trappings of Kenya, hoping for a return to their cozy life, until news from Germany and of family still trapped there turns grim. When war breaks out, the British briefly intern Walter and Susskind at a camp for enemy aliens, while Jettel and Regina are housed with the German women and children at the posh Hotel Norfolk in Nairobi. Walter loses his job and home, but his wife’s liaison with a British officer gets him hired to run a lush farm in Ol Joro Orok. The opportunity enables the Redlichs to send Regina to boarding school, but adopting the farming life in a faraway land continues to strain their marriage.

Nowhere in Africa, 2001, Lea Kurka, Juliane Kohler

Who Made It?

Stefanie Zweig spent 40 years as the arts editor of a daily newspaper in Frankfurt, Germany. She lost her job in 1988 — at the age of 56 — but buoyed by the success of a children’s book published to acclaim in 1994, Zweig turned her attention to a memoir chronicling her childhood as a German Jewish émigré growing up on the farms of Kenya. Nowhere in Africa would have no difficulty finding a publisher and arrived in bookstores in 1995. One of its earliest admirers was producer Peter Herrmann and his production company MTM Cineteve, which snagged the film rights as the novel went on to become a bestseller in Germany.

Three years later, Herrmann hooked German director Caroline Link — whose 1996 debut film Beyond Silence was nominated for an Academy Award — to adapt a screenplay and direct. In 1999, Herrmann and Link traveled to Kenya to visit the locations of Zweig’s coming-of-age story. They would reject pleas to shoot Nowhere in Africa in the film-friendly confines of South Africa and from January to April of 2001, marshal an $8 million budgeted production in Kenya. The German/Swahili/English language picture would become the highest grossing German film of 2002 and in March 2003, win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

Nowhere in Africa, 2001

How’d They Do It?

In June 1938, Stefanie Zweig arrived in Rongai, Kenya. Her 34-year-old father had been stripped of his job as an attorney and notary public by the Nazis and chose to immigrate to Kenya because the entry permit was only £50 per head. Without knowing anything about crops or cattle, he was managing a farm. With the help of the Jewish community in Nairobi, he sent for his wife and daughter. Zweig wrote, “Having learned Swahili with the speed and eagerness of a child longing to talk to people other than her parents, I loved everything about Kenya. I loved its beauty, sights and sounds, the animals and birds — but most of all the gentleness of the African heart, the people’s wit and their laughter.”

Zweig spent four decades as the chief editor of the arts section of the Abendpost-Nachtausgabe in Frankfurt. Yearning to be an author, she found solace writing children’s books in her spare time. She recalled her Kenyan experience with A Mouth Full of Earth in 1994, winning National Geographic Society’s best juvenile book in The Netherlands. Zweig then decided it was time for her to tell the mature version of her story. “I thought to myself, ‘You really are a fool to waste all your life in a children’s book, why don’t you tell the true story?’” She added, “I wrote the book in respect for my father, who told me very early in life not to hate, he taught me tolerance and not to give way to sentiments. I loved him very much and I wanted it to be his book.”

Nowhere in Africa, 2001, Sidede Onyulo, Merab Ninidze

In 1993, producer Peter Herrmann helped establish (with Andreas Bareiss) the German television and film production company MTM Cineteve. MTM would produce Romuald Karmakar’s The Deathmaker, Germany’s submission for the 1997 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Two years previous, Herrmann was researching African ethnology when he came upon Stefanie Zweig’s then little known memoir Nowhere in Africa. Herrmann recalled, “I bought it very fast, and then the book became a bestseller so I was able to raise money for this movie. Then it was also difficult to find a director who was bankable enough to finance such a film. And then I met a young director, Caroline Link, and thought, ‘She is great, but nobody knows her.’”

Caroline Link grew up in Bad Nauheim, the town just north of Frankfurt where Elvis Presley served his Army stint. She followed high school with an internship at Bavaria Film Studios in Munich and study at the nearby University of Television and Film. Link wrote and directed the 45-minute short The Days of Summer there before graduating in 1990. She entered the German film industry as an assistant director and screenwriter-for-hire. Her critically acclaimed feature film debut — the drama Beyond Silence (1996) — would be Germany’s submission to the Academy Awards in 1998. Link’s sophomore film Annaluise & Anton (starring Juliane Köhler) was equally well received by Germans in 1999.

Nowhere in Africa, 2001, Lea Kurka

By the time Caroline Link was shooting Annaluise & Anton, Peter Herrmann deemed her name bankable enough to send Link a memoir he was seeking to produce. Link recalled, “When I first read the book Nowhere in Africa I was fascinated by it. I was caught up by the story it told of a woman from a protected Jewish family who suddenly has to live in the middle of the African desert. I’ve always loved to discover new worlds with my movies, but I remember thinking to myself: ‘Wow, can I do this? Will I really be able to shoot a movie in Kenya?’” Link agreed to adapt a screenplay and direct. In 1999, Herrmann and Link traveled to Kenya to inspect the locales described by Stefanie Zweig in her story.

The trip left little doubt among the filmmakers that in order to remain authentic to Zweig’s memoir, Nowhere in Africa had to be filmed in Kenya. Peter Herrmann mused, “People like to watch films about Africa. But I think that many films about Africa communicate the wrong things. Our decision to film in Kenya was kind of a risk. Kenya’s infrastructure is terrible. It’s difficult to organize things. Everyone in the industry told us to film it in South Africa. All films about Africa are made there. If the Americans — Hollywood — make a movie set in Kenya, they film it in South Africa. They can’t imagine organizing such a complicated thing as a big movie in a country like that and keeping costs low.”

Nowhere in Africa, 2001, Lea Kurka

Herrmann added, “Caroline and I were convinced right from the beginning that it was our desired aim to represent things the way they really are. And I think it makes a big difference that the Africans that are shown really are Kenyans, Kikuyus or Pokots or whatever and that they aren’t just South Africans playing them.” In the spring of 2000, Link began assembling a cast. Theater actress Juliane Köhler agreed to play Jettel. (Link offered, “Juliane is not afraid to play a part that is at first unsympathetic.”) Merab Ninidze — a Georgian actor who’d lived in Vienna for 10 years — was chosen to play Walter. Kenya’s Sidede Onyulo was cast as Owuor, while two German schoolgirls — 9-year-old Lea Kurka and 12-year-old Karoline Eckertz — were cast to play Regina at different ages.

With Munich based Constantin Film helping finance the $8 million budget, Nowhere in Africa opened an office in Nairobi in August 2000. Kenya was gripped in a potentially catastrophic drought. Peter Herrmann recalled, “Even in Nairobi, the crisis was felt. The entire city was filled with Massai and their flocks. The animals were feeding on the sad remains of the few plants still growing along the streets. Nairobi was on the brink of disaster. We had already invested too much to turn back, and wouldn’t be able to relocate. It didn’t rain until November. By then we had already started the construction of the farmhouses and planted artificially irrigated cornfields. We had already put our trust in the gods of Africa that they would look favorably upon the country and upon our film.”

Nowhere in Africa, 2001, Juliane Kohler

In her adaptation — which took two years to finish — Link chose to focus on the relationship between Walter and Jettel. “Stefanie Zweig tells the story from the perspective of a child. She describes her own experiences and memories. But for me, Regina’s mother Jettel is the most exciting character. What is most fascinating is her development into an independent and mature woman, who not only has to rethink her own position and priorities in life but also her relationship towards her family.” Zweig would endorse the film, but differed with Link’s approach. “My mother was a very spoilt woman but she was also very charming and warm-hearted. The actress does not convey that. She is a rather cold and tough woman and, at the time, you did not know what tough women were. My father would have murdered her on the spot if she had been like that.”

Nowhere in Africa commenced filming January 2001 in Rongai. 140 members of the cast and crew spent three weeks camped in a small tent town near Lolldaiga, with guards from the Kenya Wildlife Service posted to watch for lions or cheetahs. Caroline Link admitted to The New York Times the location made her nervous. “And yet I’m surprised that I wasn’t more so. Every night we came to our tents and took showers, and snakes would come out, attracted by the water. I should have been afraid. But I’d just stand there barefoot in the dark, completely distracted, thinking about the next day’s scenes.” Other locations for the four-month shoot included Ol Joro Orok, Nairobi and Mukutani, a community northeast of Lake Baringo which the production built a road in order to access.

Nowhere in Africa, 2001, Juliane Kohler, Merab Ninidze

Peter Herrmann recalled, “Filming in Mukutani proved to be the greatest challenge. We planted cornfields that had to have three different grades of maturity during the shoot. In order to show on screen that time had elapsed we had to have young, low corn plants, green corn plants and the mature yellow corn plants. One of the highlights of the movie, the attack/plague of the locusts was filmed in the field of ripe corn. The first seeds had already been sown in November so that there would be ripe corn in March. To supervise the growth of the corn we had a ‘corn commissioner’ who traveled once a week 100 km from Nakuru to Mukutani.”

Premiering December 27, 2001 in Germany, Nowhere in Africa became the country’s highest grossing film of 2002. It swept the German Film Awards (the Lolas) in June with five wins: Outstanding Feature Film, Direction (Caroline Link), Cinematography (Gernot Roll), Music (Niki Reiser) and Supporting Actor (Matthias Habich). Germany named Nowhere in Africa its submission to the Academy Awards and in March 2003, it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Distributed by Zeitgeist Films in the United States that same month, Nowhere in Africa never expanded beyond 78 theaters, but its Academy Award propelled it to $6.1 million at the domestic box office. Overseas, it racked up $18.1 million in tickets.

Nowhere in Africa, 2001, Silas Kerati, Karoline Eckertz

Critics responded enthusiastically. David Ansen, Newsweek: “This German movie, with its lush cinematography and lovely score, has the sturdiness of an old-fashioned Hollywood epic. What isn’t Hollywood is Link’s refusal to tell the audience how to feel at every moment.” Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle: “Thanks to the superior performances by all four leads (including incredibly expressive Karoline Eckertz, who appears as the teenage Regina midway through), Nowhere in Africa is a meditation on everything from race and class and cultural impermanence to the inexhaustible malleability of youth.” Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times: “It is so rare to find a film where you become quickly, simply absorbed in the story. You want to know what happens next. Caroline Link’s Nowhere in Africa is a film like that.”

Link mused on her decision to take a nuanced approach to Nowhere in Africa, stating, “This is the only chance we have compared to these big Hollywood film studios. When they come up with all the technical equipment and the brilliant quality of their perfect images, to compete, we can only create films that are authentic and lifelike with a genuineness that can’t be bought. It’s more like feeling the things. Trying to direct in a lifelike manner. We tried to be very direct with the camerawork. We didn’t want it to be too stylized and arranged. It was a deliberate decision. We never tried to copy Out of Africa, on the contrary, we wanted something totally different.”

Nowhere in Africa, 2001, Karoline Eckertz, Merab Ninidze

Should I Care?

Imagining the Hollywood version of Nowhere in Africa, I can picture a pleasant travelogue with major stars playing nice characters. There would be a hot and bothered love triangle — standard for movies like Legends of the Fall — and a subplot in which the European parents react against their daughter bringing home a Kenyan boy. While opportunities for retarded storytelling are plentiful in this exotic coming-of-age tale, it isn’t the American version, it’s the German one, and for once, moviegoers are better off for it. Caroline Link’s adaptation of Stefanie Zweig’s vibrant memoir skips over its impulses for brain dead melodrama and swims in historic texture, warm atmosphere and simple, emotionally resonant power.

Nowhere in Africa opens with a bleak, thirsty Africa as seen through the eyes of Europeans who have arrived there against their will. The cinematography by Gernot Roll — shot mostly with the majestic, handheld Steadicam — is worthy of an Oscar nomination, growing more mysterious and lush as the story progresses. In her riveting third film, Link focuses on the trials of a marriage that is anything but ideal, but increases in strength the more Walter and Jettel overcome. The performances are uniformly terrific, particularly Matthias Habich as the bachelor farmer, Lea Kurka as the 6-year-old Regina and the many native Kenyans in the cast. Niki Reiser composed the rousing musical score to what is one of the most satisfying film experiences I’ve had in a while.

Nowhere in Africa, 2001

Where’d You Get All of This?

“In the African Sun While Dark Came Over Europe” By Laura Winters. The New York Times, 23 February 2003

“Strangers In a Strange Land” By Stefanie Zweig. The Guardian, 21 March 2003

“Germany’s Road to the Oscar” BBC News, 24 March 2003

“African Love Affair Inspires Oscar”
By Rebecca Thomas. BBC News, 4 April 2003

Production Notes – Nowhere in Africa

“Making of Nowhere in AfricaNowhere in Africa DVD. Sony Home Entertainment (2003)

Tags: Based on novel · Bathtub scene · Coming of age · Father/daughter relationship · Military · Mother/daughter relationship · Train

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 TD // Sep 23, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    I love your site. I’m curious, though, while all the stills are so dark. I view your site on different computers using different monitors and the photos are always too dark to see clearly. You might want to check the monitor you put do your coding on to see if it needs to be calibrated.

    Otherwise this site totally rocks.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Sep 24, 2009 at 12:31 am

    T.D.: Thanks so much for dropping by and complimenting what you’re reading here. I really appreciate that. Eloquent film criticism has its place, but taking a movie apart in the context of how it was produced generally makes me a much more informed moviegoer than reading most reviews of those same movies.

    Let me open the floor to any of my 19 readers: Are the stills too dark?

  • 3 Croc // Sep 24, 2009 at 4:22 am

    It looks OK to me, but really I do not care about the still that much. I admire the writing as always !

Leave a Comment