Nowhere in Africa (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Skinner: We need a name that's witty at first, but that seems less funny each time you hear it.

Apu: How about the "Be-Sharps"

(General laughter, then silence when they simultaneously realize it isn't funny.)

Skinner: Perfect

My first reaction to "Nowhere in Africa" was very similar to the Be Sharps first reaction to their new name on The Simpsons. I thought the film was terrific, very honest and moving, beautifully painted. It was only upon thinking about it that I found it quite flawed. When I thought about it some more, I realized that there was a good explanation for those flaws, and that they were not really flaws at all, but part of a narrative device.

It's a German movie (in German and Swahili) about a family of middle class German Jews who move to Africa in the late 30s to avoid the situation in Germany.

  • The father is a lawyer by trade, but he realizes that a simple agricultural life in Africa is better than the alternative, so he resigns himself to make do as best he can.
  • The mother seems to be a material-oriented woman, whose last decision before leaving for Africa is to buy a ball gown instead of the refrigerator her husband asked her to bring. She starts with a condescending attitude toward Africa and Africans, but is unable to equate her attitude toward Africans with the Germans' attitude toward Jews. She is miserable. She and her husband develop marital troubles, and her eye wanders.
  • The daughter is a little girl who does what little kids invariably do, which is to make some kind of a life in their new surroundings. She learns Swahili, makes African friends, and generally gets on with the process of living.

When the war is over, the family members have to make a difficult decision about returning to Germany. Their Jewish friends are gone. Their life is in Africa. The daughter has never really known anything but Africa, and is happy with her life. The wife, despite a difficult adaptation, has gradually come to love her surroundings. The father, in love with Africa at first, would like to return because he has a profession in Germany, and no talent for farming or soldiering, his sole choices in Africa.

The director uses a warm golden palette to show the simple landscapes of Kenya. This is not a Discovery Channel special. There are not many arcane tribal customs or exotic animals on display, except in the same frequency they would occur in the lives of the Germans. The cinematography is gorgeous and simple. The situations and dialogue are free from rhetorical flourishes. The two actresses who played the little girl are completely captivating. I watched it once and was touched by it.


Juliane Koehler bared her breasts in an outdoor scene, then showed her breasts and the top of her bum in a darkly lit sex scene.

Then I started to think about it. How is it that all the kids in Africa were so accepting of their new playmate? Do you infer that children there are not like children in the rest of the world? They don't make fun of outsiders? How is it that all the Africans are so proud, so wise, so gentle? Are we to infer that nobody has any violent urge to overthrow the white colonials? How is it that the Africans seem to make no distinction between Germans and English and Jews? Are they so pure of heart as to be incapable of understanding the concept of warfare between tribes with different languages, and that different people worship different gods? All of the film's rosy-tinted suggestions are contradicted by actual historical events in Africa.

Then I started to think some more? Where are the real hardships of African life for the Europeans? The film concentrated on things that are easy to adapt to. It is not that difficult to learn new languages and to eat new food. But what about constantly fighting the attacks of worms? What about the lack of medical care when somebody really needs it? Those were the sorts of things that finally persuaded me to leave the African and other undeveloped countries where I once worked cheerfully. I almost died in a poor country once from a simple attack of diarrhea, and was saved only because I worked for a big oil company, whose local officials were able to bribe me into the top hospital where they took my vitals and rushed me to the top of the priority list. In the US or Europe, the whole matter would have been nothing, but what if I had been on my own in the developing world? Those kinds of issues, the matters of difficult adaptation for outsiders, were completely ignored in the film. The author chose instead to deal with the Europeans' shallow and ultimately foolish resistance to matters which were actually simple adaptations.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Making Of 'Nowhere in Africa'" featurette

  • "The Premiere" featurette

  • Four Music Videos

  • Still Gallery with Producer Commentary

  • Deleted Scenes (with optional commentary)

  • Cast & Crew Interviews

  • Rehearsal Footage

  • Storyboard Comparison

  • Widescreen anamorphic format

  • Number of discs: 2

Then I realized that I was overreaching with analysis. In fact, what I observed was exactly what should have been in the movie. The story, after all, was told through the eyes of a child, narrated by the adult version of that child many years later, from her dim memories of that period. Since she was just a child at the time, her understanding of things was not profound. Their gentle cook did seem like a perfect person to her. Since her recollections occurred many years after the events portrayed, her memories were romanticized and selective. Presenting the story this way is a perfectly legitimate literary invention. Unfortunately, that type of literary device - using an adult's childhood memories to narrate a story - is generally clearer on the written page, where the POV is continually re-established.

I guess it's best to go back to my first reaction, my gut reaction to the movie. It's an old-fashioned story that draws one into the characters, then allows those characters to grow. It hooked me. It hooked a lot of other people as well.

The Critics Vote

  • Roger Ebert 4/4

  • General UK consensus: two and a half stars. Daily Mail 4/10, DailyTelegraph 5/10,Independent 7/10,The Guardian 4/10,The Times 8/10,The Sun 9/10,The Express 8/10, BBC 3/5

  • It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 8.0/10, Yahoo voters B+.
  • It did six million dollars in the USA, in art house distribution. That was actually quite a solid performance against its target market. It never reached as many as 100 screens, but it was playing in April, and is still playing as I write this in October. It did about eight million dollars in Germany.


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. It scores well on every possible measurement. Even the box office was pretty solid for a foreign language movie. I don't think average moviegoers are interested in an actionless film in German and Swahili. But if you are interested in an old-fashioned narrative, and are not daunted by subtitles, this is a terrific film.

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