This academy award nominated foreign language film traces one German Jewish
family's flight from the dangers of the Holocaust and the consequences of
substantial uprooting. More than that, it's focus on character produces
the sort of motivational complexity that mirrors real life. This is a lot
more than a travel-adventure yarn.
There was much confusion in Germany in the late 30's, especially for the
increasingly endangered Jews as their institutions, positions and
infrastructure were being degraded daily by the Nazis in their rise to power.
There was no way to know what awaited them and, while millions remained and
lost their lives in death camps, a few were far sighted enough to correctly
perceive the warning signs of disaster. A few emigrated before the actual
world war began.
In 1938, Walter Redlichs (Merab Ninidze), a lawyer, found a job as a
caretaker for a ranch in Kenya, Africa, providing him an important claim on
permanence in a land of alien laws and customs. After a bout with malaria,
he sends for his family, his wife Jettel (Juliane Kohler) and young daughter
Regina (Karoline Eckertz and Lea Kurka at different ages). His German
expatriate friend Susskind (Mattias Habich) and native cook Uwuor (Sidede
Onyulo) fill out the immediate circle of life on the barren outpost.
On this remote ranch, where the job of a caretaker is to see that the animals
as well as the people have enough water and food to survive the dust and
dryness, our main focus is the survival of the core family relationship, one
that doesn't seem entirely a committed one. Pampered Jettel is disappointed
about finding herself on a scrubby patch of farm, missing the comforts of
home, and has no qualms about expressing her unhappiness to Walter.
Hoping for more support from Jettel and an appropriate gratefulness for their
escape from danger, Walter soon discovers that she has not only left Germany
without the refrigerator that would be so indispensable to an African
household but that, instead, she brought her fine China. To further
indicate where her values and grasp of realities are, she admits to having
stopped for some shopping in Vienna where she splurged on an expensive dress.
We discover, with Walter, that this lady is too self absorbed to like. Yet,
he clings to his essential love for his wife even while enduring character
traits that challenge the concept of partnership.
The negative strains of such a relationship against the backdrop of survival
makes for a unique study, one in which our sympathies are severely tested.
Director Caroline Link, adapting from Stefanie's Zweig's autobiographical
novel, avoids what could easily have become a gross study in sentiment though
and, instead, deals with a complex texture of feelings that appears to stem
from passion and willfulness, individuality and imagination while the theme of
instability plays out.
The constant of love revolves around Regina, their bright, fearless and
adventurous daughter who is so well drawn and dominant that she comes close
to stealing the show or, at least, proving that she could. Her indomitable
intelligence and fastidious concentration on those she holds dear will
captivate you and provides the most solid foundation for sympathetic
involvement in a story that dwells overmuch on the emotional tensions between
the imperfect parents.
Regina's tight relationships includes the cook, Uwuor, a local tribesman who
takes pride in working for the "Bwana". This is a character who is fully
endearing and vital to the totality of the family's existence, a fact that
Walter values. A zing of human truth finds its mark when Walter criticizes
Jettel for treating Uwuor with insufficient respect. She, of course, learns
to do so, as her life in Africa develops into a great enough love of the land
to resist leaving it.
While suffering from too much detail and emphasis on negative character
traits, the story defies you to predict developments in the years-long saga
of this family. The winding down of the war brings the question of their
survival's meanings and responsibilities. No less surprising is the
emotional effect derived from the experience of acceptance into the unique
culture and land of Africa.
A film not without its flaws but intelligent and well away from a
~~ Jules Brenner