The Perils of Escape; Caroline Link Discusses “Nowhere in Africa”
by Matthew Ross
Nabbing an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film is a distinction that’s escaped some of our most celebrated international directors. But Germany’s Caroline Link has received two such honors despite remaining largely below the radar among world cinephiles stateside. Her most recent film, “Nowhere in Africa,” managed to outmuscle some heavily touted international contenders (including Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God,” Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s “Mondays in the Sun,” Lukas Moodysson’s “Lilja 4-Ever,” and Francois Ozon’s “8 Women”) to advance to the next round. (She got her first nod for 1998’s “Beyond Silence.”) After March 23, there’s a very good change she’ll be flying home, probably unrecognized, with a gold statuette in her carry-on luggage.
In Germany, however, Link is a star. “Nowhere in Africa” was the highest-grossing German release of 2002, winning five German Film Awards, including best picture and best director. Adapted from Stephanie Zwieg’s best-selling memoir of the same name, the film tells the story of a German-Jewish family who abruptly flee for Kenya on the eve of World War II, leaving behind a comfortable bourgeois life and a close-knit extended family, all of whom eventually perish in the Holocaust. But the life Walter (Merab Ninidze), his wife Jettel (“Aimee and Jaguar”‘s Juliane Kohler), and their daughter Regina (Lea Kurka) encounter in Africa is fraught with trouble. Over the course of seven years, the uprooted trio face a series of transformative challenges (poverty, infidelity, racism) that test the limits of their collective loyalty and, in the process, completely redefine the family. Before the nominations were announced in announced, Link spoke with indieWIRE contributor Matthew Ross about her reasons for making the film, shooting on location in Africa, and how she deals with the Oscar pressure.
indieWIRE: So what attracted you to this story?
Caroline Link: After reading the book by Stephanie Zweig, I knew I wanted to do it. There were really three different reasons: one, I could get to make a movie in Africa. I wrote the screenplay in Africa and I stayed on a farm. I was really looking forward to discovering the country. Second, the fact that the Jewish family had gone all the way to Kenya was so interesting. Germans today know that Jews went to England or America, but they don’t really know that they also traveled to places as far away as Africa, Shanghai, or Peru., And these were just average people, not adventurers. I could identify with the woman who wasn’t comfortable there, who didn’t want to be there. Third, I wanted to find a personal aspect I could investigate, and I decided to concentrate on the marriage, and the problems the two people had once they arrived in Africa. Their world breaks down after their conventional lives — which worked so well together– no longer exist. They had to find something new in each other, because the old things about their life aren’t there. I want to see how they could still love each other when things get so difficult, when the circumstances change. This personal aspect is what interests me the most. I’m fascinated with discovering a new world, but what really makes people identify with the story is really the inner conflict.
iW: It seemed that before they arrived in Africa, their marriage was really a marriage of convenience.
Link: Yes, he sees something in her that he doesn’t like, that he wasn’t so aware of before. Even though they left Germany because of racism, she’s a racist too. She’s a victim and a racist, at least at the beginning. The child is also confronted with so many other aspects. She’s a German girl in an English school, but at the same time she’s not really German, she’s Jewish. But she’s treated like a regular German by the English kids. Everyone is confronted by so many prejudices. For example, the German Jews were interned in Africa when war broke out, even though they were Jews.
iW: The wife’s problems are a bit more obvious than the husband’s, but he has his own issue with the place as well.
Link: He’s very withdrawn and it takes a long time for him to let his feelings out. He doesn’t make a fuss about things. But he gets his will in the long run. He’s very stubborn in his own way. If I was a woman in that situation, I could see myself becoming crazy too. He eventually explains himself to her, but he could have done that earlier. He’s not the hero that she would have liked him to be in Africa — he can’t work with his hands, he’s more of a man of thought. He can’t really manage to make a better life for them in Africa. There were Jewish people in Africa during the war who made a better living than they did. He didn’t function outside of an intellectual context.
iW: Both the memoir and your film have been hugely successful in Germany. Why do think this story has resonated with German audiences?
Link: I think it has a lot to do with the fascination with Africa. But it’s also because people can identify with this family. They’re not like Isaak Dinesen (author of “Out of Africa”), who went to Kenya to have an adventure. This family didn’t want to go. They were ordinary people living their lives, and then all of a sudden they had to go to the desert to try to make a living. The wife thinks she’s wasting her time in Africa. She thinks: “We’re surviving, but what for? To live here and stare and the desert. That’s not a life.” Some people think that the Jews who left Germany early were lucky because they survived. But many of these people died in exile with broken hearts. It fascinates me how average, small people made a living under these circumstances. I think people can identify with that, because it’s believable.
iW: Yet at the same time, the family gradually puts down roots in Africa, and leaving becomes difficult for them.
Link: Well the husband felt like he had to go through it, but he never really opened his heart to the country. He never was able to call the place home. The wife is more emotional — at the beginning she couldn’t stand it, but at the end she opened her heart to Africa completely. It went from one extreme to the other. He was more rational; he knew they didn’t belong there.
iW: This was adapted from a memoir, yet the film isn’t told from the girl’s perspective.
Link: I’ve made two movies before, and in both there was a girl in the center of the story who explains to the adults how life is. I didn’t want to make a third movie like that. In the book, Stephanie Zweig is the center of the story. She fell in love with Africa right away. I wasn’t sure how interesting that would be. I decided to look at it from a different perspective, because the other characters are more conflicted about the place.
iW: What films influenced this movie?
Link: Well, I looked at “Out of Africa,” and while I didn’t want to make that kind of movie, the relationship between Robert Redford and Meryl Streep was done quite well. It’s love story about wanting to be free but also wanted being there for somebody else. For this family, Africa was not paradise, but hell. I wanted to show Africa as rougher, not so beautiful.
I went to Kenya when I started to write the movie but I didn’t see the beauty right away. It’s a very dry place, and you really have to look for the beauty. I thought my family in the movie had to look for the beauty too. The first farm had to be really rough and dry, not lush. Only later does it get somewhat beautiful.
iW: How long did the writing process take?
Link: It always takes very long because I don’t write very fast. I suffer with writing, but I do it because I want to do it. I guess this script took almost two years.
iW: I know that you said that you really wanted to shoot in Kenya as opposed to another African country in order to preserve authenticity. Why was that so important to you?
Link: I don’t know why, I can’t explain it. It was also true with the casting for the African characters. We auditioned characters from Paris, London, and South Africa. But it didn’t feel right. I didn’t want to cheat — I wanted it to be authentic. I always think that even if the audience doesn’t know the difference, they would somehow feel it. Also, it’s my insurance that I don’t make too many mistakes because the actors can tell me what the real situation would be like. An actor from Paris couldn’t tell me about culture in Kenya. It’s those little details that make a film authentic.
iW: What’s next for you?
Link: Well I’m getting a lot of scripts, including some from America. I want to find someone to write with. I feel like I’ve repeated myself with all these family films, and it would be really nice to get someone else to help. But I’ve had a baby, and I don’t want to shoot a film this year. I’m also doing some writing on my own. There’s also this idea I have with my boyfriend. We’d like to make an old German fairy tale, and he could direct it.
iW: A lot of people are saying that you’ve got a good chance at an Oscar nomination. How do you feel about that?
Link: It would be the second time, so that would be pretty overwhelming. But I also feel like I don’t deserve it. I’m not so sure whether I really want it. But that’s very female. It might hard for men to understand, but I think women know what I mean.
iW: So you wouldn’t be happy?
Link: Yeah, of course I’d be proud. It’s a good movie, but it has its weaknesses.