It is 1938, Germany. A Jewish family--lawyer husband, Walter (Merab Ninidze), wife, Jettel (Juliane K?ler), and young daughter, Regina (Lea Kurka, Karoline Eckertz )-- must leave their homeland. Walter establishes a base as a tenant farmer in the British colony, Kenya, sending for his wife and child later. We see Walter in Kenya, sick with malaria, being nursed by Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), a native Kenyan who serves as a live-in cook. Juxtaposed are scenes of Jettel in Germany--fashionably dressed, socially active, secure in the presence of her parents, and not looking forward to living in Africa.

The remainder of the story takes place in Kenya after Jettel and Regina join Walter, who tries to scratch out a tenant farmer's livelihood on the barren, red earth. Walter is stoic but Jettel is miserable in the strange new country, where she cannot speak the languages (English and Swahili) and desperately misses her family. Her dissatisfaction strains the marriage. Adding to the strain on both Walter and Jettel is their worry over what will happen to their parents, who remained behind in Germany. Regina, however, adapts quickly, in part because she responds to the affectionate welcome offered her by Owuor.

When war breaks out between Germany and Great Britain, the family is interned (still in Kenya)--they are considered to be enemy aliens. Men are separated from women, but the women are housed in a former resort hotel where conditions are not too unpleasant. Jettel pleads with the British administrators to find a position for her husband so that they can leave the camps--after all, she points out, they are Jewish and no friend of Hitler. A young officer overhears her, seizes the opportunity to take advantage of Jettel's vulnerability, and in exchange for her sexual favors, helps the family to leave internment and resume farming in a new location.

When the war ends, Walter looks for an opportunity to return to Germany and to work in his profession (law). He is idealistic, believing he has a responsibility to help build a decent society in Germany while Jettel, on the other hand, has grown to like their life in Kenya and deeply distrusts the country that rejected them and murdered their parents.


This award-winning, absorbing film is based on a true story and has much to offer medical humanities classes and studies. It is a realistic, beautifully acted and directed portrayal of displacement and dislocation. The strains that are imposed on people who have been wrenched from their normal way of life are subtly and accurately depicted. While children may be relatively resilient in such circumstances, adults often are not.

This is a Holocaust film of a different type--it demonstrates the upheaval and pain suffered by many who were "saved." The dislocations and sacrifice in Nowhere in Africa can serve as a metaphor for the dislocations experienced by those who have been thrust out of their usual lives by severe illness.

At the same time, the film is an interesting depiction of life in colonial Africa, and of life in rural Africa. The European family cannot survive without the help of the native, Owuor. Owuor is as attached to the family as they are to him. Yet he has family of his own--three wives and numerous children whom he rarely sees but supports with his earnings as cook. Regina fully accepts the native children with whom she plays, as they accept her, but when she attends a British-run private school, she and the other Jewish children are made to feel as outsiders. African customs flow naturally through the story, and when they seem incomprehensible to Westerners, are explained as if they were part of the often-beautiful landscape.


Oscar and Golden Globe awards for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year (2003); several European awards. Adapted by Caroline Link, from the memoir by Stephanie Zweig. In English, German, and Swahili, with English subtitles. Filmed on location in Kenya.

Primary Source

Columbia/TriStar (2003)