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Last week in Denver, The Man Without a Past opened. The Finnish film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture, but it lost to Nowhere in Africa, a German film which opens in Denver this week.

The two make an interesting and worthwhile comparison. Both are about people who have lost their pasts and must start over from scratch. Both even share a strikingly similar scene — of an emigrant planting a potato in the soil of his (her) new home. But the differences are telling too, and they tell me that the wrong film won the Academy Award.

In To Africa

Jettel and Walter try to make Kenya their new home
Jettel and Walter try to make Kenya their new home

Based on a true story, Nowhere in Africa focuses on a small Jewish family from 1938 to the end of World War II. If it were told from the point of view of the young daughter, this film might look like Hope and Glory or Empire of the Sun. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t that tightly focused; it follows Father and Mother too, which makes it even more scattered and episodic that it already was.

Father (Merab Ninidze) left Germany for Kenya in the mid-1930s because he rightly saw the rise of the Nazis as a terrible omen for Jews. In 1938, he tells his wife Jettel (Juliane Köhler) to bring a refrigerator, mosquito nets, and kerosene lamps. In denial about having to leave her home, she instead packs the good china and spends their last German marks on an evening gown, which she brings to the dusty Kenyan ranch where her husband Walter is waiting.


Nowhere in Africa is very good at showing how people adapt. Regina (Lea Kurka and Karoline Eckertz playing her at different ages) adapts easily. The shot of her foot first touching Kenyan soil is shown in slow motion, one small step for a girl, but a gigantic leap in defining who she is. Shots of her connecting with the land and local people contrast with mother’s discomfort and insistence on returning to Germany. Meanwhile, Walter tries to hold the family together.

Every movie like this has a cheerful African willing to serve the white family, which is a little troubling, class- and race-wise. This movie is no exception and it doesn’t explain or apologize. Sidede Onyulo is very good as the wise and patient Owuor, but his character has shown up in many other stories. This is a one example of how this movie, while good, has nothing new to offer.

The story follows the family as they make a life for themselves. When the war starts, the family is sent to internment camps because they are “enemy aliens” of the British colonials in Kenya. They are able to get out (after all, being Jews, they are no supporters of Hitler) and move to a farm. Regina eventually goes to a British boarding school for most of the year. After Walter leaves to join the British army, Jettel finally becomes comfortable in her surroundings.

Then Came the Locusts

The biggest problem with the movie is its episodic nature. Some periods are depicted by a single scene. While we get an idea of the big scope, it’s often hard to see where it’s going and when it will all end. After watching our emigrant family endure malaria, internment, and resettlement, the plague of locusts came, and I knew I had been sitting in the theater too long.

A better film would have found thematic threads to tie the film together, along with a more dramatic arc into which the pieces could fit. Nowhere in Africa is not bad, but it is too scattered to be great.

Nowhere in Finland

Because Landmark is bringing these two Academy Award nominees to Denver a week apart, a comparison is in order. Both Nowhere in Africa and The Man without a Past feature emigrants starting over. Both are primarily about the problems of making a new life, although Nowhere is less interested in the details of the process and more interested in the emotional impact.

If I had to pick a favorite, though, I’d choose the Finnish film. It may be less polished, but it takes more risks. It adopts a quirky, dry sense of humor that not everyone will appreciate. Nowhere in Africa, by contrast, is a formulaic, by-the-numbers drama. It’s well made — acting, cinematography, and symphonic score are all very professional. But it’s also more commonplace and more bland.

Nowhere in Africa still stands on its own as a well made biography. But I feel like I’ve seen it before a dozen times. It may be worth a trip to your friendly Landmark theater, but first go see The Man without a Past.