A boy and a girl are walking down a rail track. He is smaller, wide eyed and enthusiastically hopeful. She is more taciturn, but listens to him prattling along. We learn that they are called Oskar and Lilli, though she used to be called Leila and has changed her name to “integrate” better. They are siblings – refugees from Chechenya who have been living in Austria for 6 years.
Cut to a block of flats in Vienna. Oskar and Lilli are alone in the flat when the police storm in, asking for their mother. She’s not there at the moment, and the kids dread being deported to somewhere where they don’t know anyone and barely speak the language. The mother returns home and hides from the police in the bathroom. As a way of saving her kids, she slits her wrists.
In all the chaos, Oskar and Lilli escape to the roof, where they evade the cops for the moment at least. But they need to eat and are eventually rounded up into some sort of home for refugee kids. This is where they’re told that they’ve been fostered out – Lilli to a woman in Vienna, and Oskar to a pair of teachers who live an hour away. The pair flees once more, tying their shoelaces together, but they can’t escape.
Oskar only ever refers to his new guardians as Der Lehrer and Die Lehrerin. They are well-meaning but self-satisfied – congratulating themselves on their act of charity. They use public transport to save the environment and run a vegetarian household, though Oskar catches her sneaking a bite of sausage on a trip to the supermarket. You would applaud their social conscience if they weren’t so smug about it.
He is beardy and plays a makepiece accordion at any available opportunity. She is starting to crack up – unable to properly look after her other young son and his ageing mother, who has Parkinsons and regularly shakes (or as Oskar says, dances without music). Oskar develops a conspiratorial relationship with the old woman and pays her the attention that her family stopped giving years ago.
Meanwhile, despite some initial reticence, Lilli starts to get on well with her new foster mother, less so with her partner, a photographer who fears that Lilli is cramping his style. Lilli is sullen and moody, as befits a teenage girl, but has occasional moments of joy. But then she has nightmares her bombed out life in Chechenya, which results in her wetting her bed.
Oskar and Lilli regain contact and conspire to find their mother. The ever-optimistic Oskar believes that she will be waiting for them in their old home. Though when they finally find her – following a tip off from the photographer who sees this as a chance of getting shot of Lilli – she is helpless, probably drugged up on hospital medication, and unable to recognise them.
This is an astounding study, not just of refugee children who are neglected by an uncaring system, but of these 2 specific characters. Although Oskar is much younger and smaller than his sister, he seems to be in charge, as he is in later scenes with his mother. He is also full of boundless optimism, and fashions his food, and anything else that comes to hand, into smiley faces. This leads him to misunderstand the uncaring world in which he lives, but it’s also what keeps him going.
Similarly, Lilli’s teenage moodiness does not prevent her from occasionally enjoying herself. She makes a friend, with whom she swaps cigarettes and enjoys the rides in the Pratergarten. There is one particular scene when Lilli has just heard some good news and is circling around on a ferris wheel when she looks blissfully content – happy, almost. Shortly afterwards, and somewhat inevitably, she feels betrayed by her friend and her foster mother, and contemplates suicide.
This is a sober film which has moments of ecstasy before reality keeps bursting in. For a moment, we feel that we’re heading for a happy ending, which would be unrealistic but something that the characters would deserve if there were any justice in the world. And even when the worst does happen, the film is still able to end with a moment of impressive defiance.
Most films with cute kids get bogged down in their own treacly sentimentality. Oskar and Lilli are both sympathetic characters without being moppets who are there to be patronised. They suffer the injustices brought by their situation, but they also resist. Ein Bißchen bleiben wir noch offers the face and heart of young refugees, and we need a lot more of that in today’s society. Surely one of the films of the year.
Updated Review – June 2021
After a delayed release because of Covid-19, 2 September will finally see the German release of one of last year’s best films. “Ein Bißchen Bleiben Wir Noch” (English title: “Where No-One Knows US”) is based on Monika Helfer’s 1994 novel “Oskar and Lilli”, but by making the kids refugees Iranian -Austrian director Arash T. Riahi has added an extra degree of political urgency.
The film starts in an apartment block in Vienna. Police storm a flat to find the 9-year old Oskar and 13-year old Lilli on their own. Although their mother soon returns, the police are set to take them away anyway. So the mother slips into the bathroom where she slits her wrists while her two kids escape to the roof.
They can only hide for so long, though, and while their mother is sent to a psychiatric hospital, the kids are fostered out to two different families, who live an hour away from each other. Lily is sent to live with the lonely Rut and her deadbeat photographer boyfriend Georg. Oskar, on the other hand, finds himself with two smug vegetarian teachers, who he only ever refers to as “die Lehrerin” und “der Lehrer”.
Der Lehrer has a beard and plays a makeshift accordion at inappropriate moments. Die Lehrerin sneaks pieces of meat when she’s at the supermarket and thinks no-one’s watching. They also have a screaming child and an ageing mother with Parkinson’s disease (who, as Oskar says, “dances without music”). Oskar strikes a bond with the old woman, somehow aware that they are both trophies – there to display the liberal generosity of a couple which has no obvious interest in their thoughts or feelings.
Oskar, the eternal optimist, makes smiley faces out of everything he sees – from food to furniture. He regularly writes his mother letters, which are never answered as he doesn’t know where to send them. He believes that she’ll be waiting for them in their old flat, and when Lilli and he manage to briefly reunite, they twice try to return home. The first time, they find a blood-soaked bathroom, which the police have not got round to cleaning. The second, the locks have been changed and someone else is living there.
Lilli is not as optimistic as her brother. She develops a skin disorder and – following nightmares of being driven out of Chechenya – starts wetting the bed. Meanwhile, the photographer boyfriend thinks that Lilli is cramping his style, and makes a deal with her. He’ll try to track down her mother, so that she’ll be out of his hair.
Lilli is almost entirely sullen with one notable exception. On a ride at the Prater Gardens, she receives a message from the photographer saying that he’s found an address for her mother, As she glides through the air arms outstretched, the look on her face is one of unbridled joy. This is a rare moment of pleasure in a heartbreakingly sad film.
Lilli remains petrified when she sees policemen, feeling that any contact with them will result in her deportation. It’s not an unreasonable fear. And while Oskar is proud that his father is a freedom fighter, Lilli knows that he’s a political prisoner – and possibly dead – which would mean that their return to Chechenya, could be even worse than their current situation.
In a press statement, Riahi explained that “’Ein bisschen bleiben wir noch’ is not a film about the refugees who are coming to us now, but a film about the future of their children. Children who are growing up in Europe, who master the national language better than their mother tongue, who don’t know their homeland except though stories, but cannot find any space here.”
He goes on “because of increasingly strong laws, not everyone will be able to stay here. And so it is up to us as a society to draw attention to other possibilities of living together away from the bureaucracy, and to concentrate on the similarities between us and the so-called “foreigners” and not on what divides us.”
“Ein Bißchen bleiben wir noch” is not a film full of hope. How could an authentic film about refugees in a country that doesn’t really want them be any different? Most of the protagonists – including the mothers of both Lilli and Oskar and of Lilli’s Austrian friend – are deeply damaged by an uncaring system, and only their small children are able to offer any support.
Towards the end, Oskar tells his mother that you can buy anything nowadays, which is kind of true, but this only works if you have any money. Yet, despite the general air of hopelessness, the film does manage to show occasional moments of joy, right up to the final scene which threatens to offer us a glimmer of hope before bringing us crashing down for a final time.
Nonetheless, “Ein Bißchen bleiben wir noch” is not a miserable film. This is in part down to the remarkable performances by Leopold Pallua as Oskar and in particular Rosa Zant as Lilli. They bring us into their hopeless world and silently demand our empathy. This means that we leave the film not just appalled at the gross injustices experienced by Oskar, Lilli and many people like them, but also motivated to fight for a better and fairer world.