THERE IS nothing you don't already know in the austerely elegiac "Nowhere in Africa." But there is nothing you should forget, either.
"Nowhere in Africa," winner of the foreign-language Academy Award, may strike many viewers as a sort of conflation of various Holocaust miniseries with "The Flame Trees of Thika," and not solely because of its deliberate PBS-style pacing. (Indeed, next to the passionate Chopin of "The Pianist," this year's other Nazi-era Oscar-winner, it's almost a waltz.)
It's the semi-autobiographical account of a young German girl (called Regina in the movie, but standing in for journalist Stefanie Zweig, whose best-selling novel was published in 1995), whose parents flee the increasingly virulent Nazi regime in 1938 by taking refuge on, culturally speaking, the other side of the world: Kenya. There the family -- Regina, the ineffectual but idealistic lawyer, Walter, and his socialite wife, Jettel -- struggle to make a go of a cattle farm in the drought-ridden scrub, helped by the exhaustively patient and wise cook, Owuor, and the Polot and N'Jem tribal villagers.
The difficulty is in the cliches, which, though presumably true to Zweig's life, might better have been leavened by dramatic license. Jettel's mannerly condescension toward Owuor and her stubborn refusal to learn the language or even unpack her good china too obviously echo both the classism she has enjoyed and the anti-Semitism she has escaped. Regina, who is 5 when the movie opens and frightened even of dachshunds, is liberated by Kenya and her natural love for Owuor and his people. (In truth, there are moments when the lanky Owuor and the pure-hearted Regina evoke Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Shirley Temple, another piece of racial revisionism that would probably elude German audiences.)
Other cliches include a good-looking British Army officer who is willing to trade economic favors for Jettel's sexual ones; Susskind, a wiser, older German settler who looks out for the family (and especially Jettel, of course); and a superior British schoolmaster to whom Regina is "the little Jewish girl," and so on.
What rescues the film is Gernot Roll's spare, almost aesthetic cinematography, and the quality of the acting. As Jettel, Juliane Kohler has an elongated beauty that nearly equals that of the Kenyan women -- think Julianne Moore by Botticelli. (Her imitation of their bare-breasted sway is mesmerizing.) As the despairing Walter, haunted by his own lost ambitions and the families they have left behind, Merab Ninidze gradually comes to a sense of his own worth that seems sincerely earned. Both the young and teenaged actresses who play Regina, Lea Kurka and Karoline Eckertz, respectively, move (and speak musical Swahili) effortlessly through their own cross-cultural passages. And Sidede Onyulo gives the saintly Owuor a streak of secret, silent irony that rescues him from the bloodless implausibility of Zwieg's nostalgia.
"Nowhere in Africa" even has a happy ending, but this may be an ideal moment for movies that promise us life, and even honor, after war.
NOWHERE IN AFRICA (Unrated,138 minutes) -- Contains some nudity and sexually suggestive footage. In German with English subtitles. At the Cinema Arts and Landmark Bethesda theaters.