Nowhere in Africa, German director Caroline Link’s award-winning feature about a bourgeois Jewish family that escapes from Nazi Germany to a farm in the African bush, was shot mostly in Kenya. But the country’s spectacular landscapes take second place to the characters’ inner transformations.
Link, who spent six months writing and filming on location, provides a sobering vision of a country often represented in terms of travel fantasy. “Kenya is not just a marvelous safari park,” she says. “It’s also a very tough place to survive. I wanted to show how difficult it is for these people who don’t want to be there. Jette, this spoiled beautiful lady, arrives at the first farm with her evening dress and says, Are you serious, we’re supposed to live here? Why are we living then at all? And then slowly, as she grows, and falls in love with the place and with Africa, she begins to see it with different eyes. And the landscape becomes softer and greener.”
Nowhere in Africa is adapted from the autobiographical novel by Stephanie Zweig, a German Jewish journalist based in Frankfurt, whose family spent the war years shuttling between Nairobi and farming outposts where her father, a lawyer by training, eked out a living as a supervisor. In her screenplay, Link shifted the focus from Zweig’s childhood experiences to her parents’ faltering relationship.
“When they left home, they lost everything that was important and precious to them,” the director explained. “Their love had to change, because the world around them had changed so much.”
Shooting in isolated communities, Link and producer Peter Herrmann (an ethnographer) wondered how to recompense the many extras from the Pokot and Njem tribes who took part in the movie. “The tribal elders sat under an acacia tree and talked about it,” Link recalled. “They decided it wasn’t a good idea to pay individual people money, because that creates tension. Instead, they told us what they wanted for the community—a road connecting them to a bigger village nearby, which we’re building together with the Kenyan state government.”
Though Link’s film ends on a note of hope, the losses of the Holocaust are in some ways amplified by its remote setting. “Of course, we always think that those people who left Germany early enough to survive were the lucky ones,” the filmmaker said. “But for many, the tragedy just began then. They never felt at home, or found a home elsewhere. I thought that was worth talking about, too.”
Laura Sinagra’s review of Nowhere in Africa