‘Nowhere in Africa," Germany’s Oscar entry for this year’s best foreign-language film, tells the story of a Jewish family that flees Nazi Germany only to find sanctuary in a different kind of inhospitable terrain.
In the film, based on Stefanie Zweig’s best-selling memoir "Nirigendwo in Afrika," the Reidlich family (Walter, Jettel and their daughter, Regina) find themselves isolated on a dusty farm in Kenya, besieged by locusts and even detained as resident enemies by the ruling British. Their dislocation nearly breaks the family apart.
"Nowhere in Africa," which opens in theaters March 7, is as much a reflection of director and screenwriter Caroline Link’s real-life understanding of love and partnership as it is an adaptation of Zweig’s coming-of-age tale. "When your environment changes, the challenge of the love story changes too," said Link, who at 38 has spent the last 12 years paired with filmmaker Dominic Graff. Six months ago, she became a first-time mother to Pauline, who accompanied Link on a recent trip to New York.
Speaking to The Jewish Week in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West, Link sat comfortably in an armchair, dressed in jeans and a pink corduroy jacket. She appeared to block out the bustle of guests passing by on their way to the elevators as she spoke about her most recent film project.
In order to remain true to Zweig’s book, Link and producer Peter Hermann chose to shoot on location in Kenya, but Link refused to linger on the beauty of the African countryside or to present it as a "safari park with giraffes in the sunset and acacia trees." After all, she said, for the characters, "being there was a penalty, not a paradise."
The crew itself arrived in the midst of a devastating drought, which required emergency relief in some of the driest areas. Unanticipated rains followed the searing summer and nearly flooded the set, transforming the crew’s newly constructed road into a swampy morass.
"For a while Peter thought we would have to stop and be taken out by helicopter," Link said. "The road was completely washed away." Members of the crew have since founded the Mukutani Foundation to aid the village that provided the setting for many scenes, including the computer-enhanced locust infestation.
Link began winning awards with her first short film, which she made as a 26-year-old graduate of Munich’s Academy for Television and Film in 1990. "Sommertage" won that year’s Kodak Support Prize at the Hof Film Days. Nine short films, features and documentaries followed, including "Beyond Silence," her first film to get tapped for best foreign language film. On March 23, Link will find out if "Nowhere in Africa" is her first Oscar winner.
Hermann had purchased the film rights to Zweig’s book in 1995 even before the wartime tale had become a bestseller. He gave the book to Link, who saw potential for a film, but not in the book’s primary narrative, written from a child’s perspective. Regina "was happy from the moment she got there," Link said of the book’s narrator. "It wasn’t enough of a story." Link needed more conflict if she were to bring a film to life.
There was plenty of material from Zweig’s passages about her parents. In the film, Walter is a lawyer in Germany who finds work as a farm manager in Kenya and sends for his wife and daughter. Torn from a comfortable home and close-knit family, Jettel resists her new circumstances and rejects her husband.
Jettel’s character was drawn from Zweig’s descriptions of her mother, "but part of it came from my own fantasies about this woman," Link said. "How it would have felt for her in dusty Africa?"
Link similarly sought out the inner conflict for "Beyond Silence," which starred French actress Sylvie Testud. Ostensibly, the 1995 film is about a deaf couple raising a hearing child. Really, "Beyond Silence" is not about deafness, Link said.