“Nowhere In Africa,” premiering in Geneva at the Smith Opera House on June 19, sets intimate lives on a canvas of continental drift and global unrest. The deserved winner of this year's Oscar for best foreign-language picture, it's one of the most distant stories ever told of Nazi persecution of the Jews during World War II, yet it is anything but remote.
The German writer-director Caroline Link adapts Stefanie Zweig's bestselling autobiographical novel about wartime life in wildest Kenya, which seems at times more like a reborn “Born Free” than anything to do with Hitler's scourge. The characters struggle to define their lives in a land of mystery and a world that has lost its bearings.
This is a family story, told by a young girl named Regina (played first by Lea Kurka and later by Karoline Eckertz). She is the sole child of lawyer Walter (Merab Ninidze) and social striver Jettel (Juliane Koehler), and they have long lived comfortable lives in Breslau.
The year is 1938, the month is January, and the threat of Hitler and his persecution of the Jews has been hinted at, but not yet fully realized. “This will all be over in one or two years,” Regina's grandfather Max (Gerd Heinz) confidently affirms.
But Walter has seen the writing on the wall and decamped to Africa, where he manages a farm. Did he leave for reasons other than persecution? There is no time to ponder the question, because the situation changes suddenly, and dramatically, when Jettel receives a
letter from Walter, instructing her to sell most of the family's possessions and to travel with Regina by steamer to Kenya at the earliest opportunity.
Jettel bristles at Walter's letter, but she heeds the instructions. While she is en route to Africa, taking the proverbial slow boat, Walter fights for his life from a bout with malaria. The situation looks grim for him, but he is under the care of an implacable local man, Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), who has been hired as cook but is also the dispenser of much wisdom.
Jettel and Regina have markedly different reactions to Kenya. The mother immediately hates the place, and sets about attempting to impose German order on Kenyan serenity. She doubts the threat of the Nazis, despises Walter for insisting on leaving Germany and distrusts Owuor and the other Kenyans, whom she ironically treats with the same disdain her fellow Jews are receiving back home.
Regina, on the other hand, is excited about her new home and immediately sets out to discover it, befriending Owuor and other locals as she soaks up each new experience.
As the months roll on, tensions rise. News of the distant war, heard via BBC reports on a scratchy radio, tell of advancing horrors for the Jews, which finally strikes home for Jettel when Britain declares war on Germany and she and her daughter are interned by the British in a camp that is more like a hotel resort.
There is increasing drama on the home front, too, as disagreements between Jettel and Walter turn to estrangement, and later to actions that test the marriage even more drastically. A war at home has joined the world at war.
Superbly acted and brilliantly lensed, “Nowhere In Africa” is that hard-to-achieve movie where the small picture counts for more than the bigger one. World War II rages largely in the background as we are caught up in the day-to-day dramas and discoveries of Jettel, Walter and Regina.
“Nowhere In Africa” will be screened at 7 p.m. on June 19, 20 and 21, and at 2 p.m. on June 22.
This film is not rated. In German with English subtitles, its running time is 2 hours, 20 minutes. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for students and seniors. All seats on Thursday are $3.
The Smith Opera House is located at 82 Seneca Street in Geneva. Call 315-781-LIVE or toll-free 1-866-355 LIVE for additional information. The Smith is supported, in part, with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, the City of Geneva, the Town of Geneva and by contributions from individual supporters.