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‘Everyone Claimed To Have Hid Some Jews in the Cellar’

A blond boy sleds into a woman on a snowy slope at the outset of the beautifully wrought film “Nowhere in Africa,” this year’s official German entry for an Academy Award for best foreign-language film (which opened March 7 at Sunshine Cinema and Lincoln Plaza), based on the German best-selling autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig. But why does the woman wear a look of horror as he tries to help her up? It takes the viewer a moment to understand that the boy, wearing a swastika, is a Hitler youth, and that this woman, a Jew, has good reason to avoid him.

Antisemitism is muted in the Germany this bourgeois family leaves behind for Kenya, where they find refuge working a series of farm jobs. The drama then turns domestic, looking at the toll all of this takes on the parents’ marriage and self-esteem. The mother becomes more focused on crop damage caused by locusts than on her social calendar, Rosenthal china and beaded party gown. She also confronts her own racism as she fears her young daughter Regina’s relationship with the cook, Owour.

Caroline Link, the film’s director and screenwriter, 38, lives in Munich, the city of my birth where my family made a brief stop between Auschwitz and America. Curious about this sophisticated third-generation German, already a seasoned filmmaker with an Academy Award nomination in 1998 for “Beyond Silence,” I had a chance to speak to her on a recent visit to New York.

Forward: What is the reception like for Holocaust films in Germany these days?

Link: The Holocaust is a bigger thing in America than in everyday Germany. People say, “Not again.” When I went to Israel for a film festival, I found myself so understood: Young Israelis are tired of talking about that subject too. As a German you have the feeling, “I know this, heard it hundreds of times. It’s so cliché.” That’s why I wanted to be subtle and not show too much. We’ve seen people paint Stars of David on the windows and insult Jews on the street. I’m always afraid that I will show something horrible and no one will be moved. “Again? Again?” they say, so I showed the Holocaust in a different way.

How did you come to focus on the refugee experience?

I talked to people who lived in Africa, to Jewish people, to friends who have marital trouble. I found it interesting to see how marriage can work in certain circumstances. In their comfortable world in Germany, he was somebody, and she was representative of a large and important family. All of a sudden it doesn’t count anymore that she is good-looking and he is a good lawyer, he needs his hands and she needs to be a partner. They have to find themselves in a new context.

What was the attitude in Germany toward a Jewish family, such as Zweig’s, eventually coming back to Germany?

When she went on book tour many people blamed her: “Why did you come back? How can you live in this country?” I read her second book, “Somewhere in Germany,” and found it fascinating because after the war nobody [claimed they] had anything against the Jews, and everyone claimed to have hid some Jews in the cellar. In one scene she has an accident with her bike and bumps into someone who sees that she is Jewish and, in a rage, says, “Why didn’t you die in the gas chamber?” The hatred was still there. As a teenager I wondered what my grandmother did [during the war]. Maybe she wasn’t that honest when she said she never liked Hitler. Maybe she did at the beginning. And what did the Jewish people do to provoke so much hate in Germany? She would always say, “Sometimes the situation with the Jewish people was not easy. They were strong in their families and separated themselves from others.” That scared many people, but that’s not an answer. It must have been very difficult for [the author]. Her father made the distinction between Nazis and Germans.

Germans must hate being stereotyped.

When you are attacked you feel defensive. When you say you are German, people think of cars, Hitler and efficiency. When I go to America I think of only a few things that are better in Germany, like the environment. At home we are all critical of our government. We are not patriots like the Americans. People have difficulty saying “I love my country” like you do in America. This seems funny to us. I don’t want to compare World War II with anything. It was horrible, but I was just reading about mass rape in Bosnia. I kept thinking, How can those men think about sex when women are crying, young girls, their former friends and neighbors? How can good fathers, family men, do that? If I make [a movie about that] I certainly don’t want to show robots, bad guys who find raping women sexy. Not just to say, this is a bad person, a devil, but it’s a human being. How did the Nazis do what they did? We will probably never be able to answer.

Regina Weinreich, co-producer and director of the documentary “Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider,” is the editor of Jack Kerouac’s “Book of Haikus” (Penguin Putnam, 2003). She last appeared in these pages June 28, 2002, reviewing David Grossman’s “Be My Knife” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

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