A Holocaust film that goes beyond the horror | AspenTimes.com

A Holocaust film that goes beyond the horror

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

My great-grandparents were the fortunate ones. Russian and Polish Jews, they were done a favor by the Czar, who made life so intolerable that they were forced to flee Europe for the security of the United States. In America, they found security, freedom and a reasonable amount of prosperity, and they were spared the horrors that were to befall European Jews some decades later.

The unfortunate ones had their possessions taken by the Nazis, were confined to ghettos, and eventually perished in death camps.

In between lie the Redlichs, the family at the center of director Caroline Link’s “Nowhere in Africa.” The Redlichs don’t die in the camps. Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze), sensitive to the early rumblings of Naziism, leads his family – wife Jettel (Juliane Köhler) and young daughter Regina (Lea Kurka) – out of Germany in 1938, while escape is still an option.

But America is not in the Redlich’s future. Thanks to a contact with another German Jew, who fled Europe long ago, Walter has found work as a ranch manager in Kenya. Walter summons his family to join him in the rural region of Rongai. It is as alien a place, as foreign a life as Jettel can imagine. Instead of the refrigerator Walter has told her to bring, she takes with her a set of fine china and an expensive new gown.

The atrocities in Europe are a continent away, but still have a hold on the Redlichs. Their relatives send the occasional letter, detailing the escalating torture. And even though the Nazis are the enemy, they miss their old, privileged life in Germany. Walter, barely competent working the land in Kenya, longs for the work he did as an attorney. Jettel, who hates most everything about their new life, complains that she was more German than Jew anyway.

But “Nowhere in Africa” won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film not so much because of its portrayal of the Redlichs’ attachment to their past, but because of how they manage their present. With the feel of an epic, “Nowhere in Africa” examines the arcs of Walter and Jettel’s relationship as they experience cycles of anger, acceptance, blame and comfort. More than anything, the film is a description of a marriage; rural Kenya during World War II makes for a loaded setting.

“Sometimes I think we’re like two packages. All tied up, lying in a train, which is taking us to an unknown address. We travel a long way together, but we don’t really know what’s inside,” Walter says of his relationship with Jettel. It’s a universal sentiment that could apply to any marriage, anywhere, any time.

A counterpoint to the oft-troubled marriage is Regina. A meek toddler in Germany, Regina thrives in Kenya, thanks in large part to her relationship with Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), the Redlichs’ African cook. As the Redlichs are bounced around Kenya – from the ranch to a luxurious internment camp to a farm – Regina is the family anchor, continuously adapting.

“Nowhere in Africa” presents yet another angle on the Holocaust – and much more. It is a film about identity and resilience, adapting and compromising, and what it takes to survive as a family. And because director Link allows all three Redlichs to reveal their minds, it is a remarkably well-balanced film, offering views of the masculine and feminine, young and old, outside and inside. At every turn, those viewpoints ring honest and true, and “Nowhere in Africa” becomes an absorbing slice of an uncommon life.

“Nowhere in Africa” is showing at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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