After World War II: Finding Where I Belong
In Fritz Urschitz’ first feature film, an Austrian émigré to the U.K. seeks affinity in a story where language forms identity
The eye changes over time: Looking back now 50 years on the manners, conventions, look and style of the 1950s feel like a foreign land: familiar, but very far away.
This is the world of Where I Belong, the first feature length film written and directed by Austrian filmmaker Fritz Urschitz. Set in a small English town in the first decade after World War II, we see the time and place through the eyes of Austrian émigré Rosemarie (Natalie Press) and her father Friedrich (Matthias Habich) who fled Austria to escape the Nazi oppression.
Where I Belong plays out very much in the vein of a kitchen-sink drama – the domestic trials of the British working class in rented flats, angry young men and oppressed women drinking away their troubles in grimy pubs. It is the love story of a young girl falling for an older, more sophisticated man and her resolute determination to make something of her life. A restless questioning pervades the film: Where do Rosemarie and the other main characters feel they really belong – Austria or England? Language defines identity – there is an alternate use of English and German according to context and at times the characters even fuse the two.
Rosemarie works in a shop in the town that sells fabrics, and splits her evenings between her typing class and the vibrant and lively dance hall, where a boy called Ronnie is interested in her affections. She keeps him at a distance and seems to want more than the conventions of the time allow, questioning whether she and her friends could aspire to more than just marriage.
Living outside of the town, she catches the bus home along dark lanes with no lighting and runs the last stretch to the house letting herself in with the key that is hidden outside the front door. A note from her father, written in German, tells her that her food is in the pantry – a sandwich that she takes up to her room which she eats as she rubs her feet aching from dancing in her cheap shoes. Rosemarie moves easily between German at home and English outside. With British actress Natalie Press in the central role, we see that Rosemarie has fully integrated into English life.
The action is largely interior: The house is sparse and has few additional comforts – she labours to light the fire to get the house warm and the toilet is outside with newspaper as toilet paper. Even at home Rosemarie respectfully knocks on the door before entering the living room where her father is sitting. Friedrich’s life is consumed by trying to reclaim the family property in Austria confiscated during the War. Aging and embittered, he drowns his sorrows drinking too much in the pub. He is supportive of his daughter but distracted by his quest to return "home".
Change comes in the form of Anton (Johannes Krisch), Friedrich’s old friend from the dark days of internment, whose sudden arrival triggers a wash of affection, but also loss and longing. The bottle of Blaufränkish he brings has Friedrich in raptures – it is a taste and pleasure he misses from home. Friedrich is invigorated and Rosemarie charmed. Anton pursues Rosemarie, going to the fabric shop where she works. She tells him not to speak German. But her boss is impressed when Anton buys the best they have – a gift for Friedrich.
In the local pub, Rosemarie sees Anton again and his "worldliness" is a stark contrast to her younger suitor Ronnie, who in turn is incensed by the rejection. Who is that "old man", he taunts? Perhaps she finds flirting easier in German! But Rosemarie is decided; she goes to soak at the public bath, and dresses in her finest clothes. Together they step out to an expensive restaurant, with the mood tingling with nervousness. "Life is crazy!" they declare, raising their glasses. Later at the coast looking out to the restless sea, Anton longs for home, and they spend the night together at a hotel. When she returns home the next day, Friedrich is incensed and tells his daughter to leave.
From there, Rosemarie’s life unravels. Yet her fierce determination supports her. After losing her job and learning, to her dismay, that Anton is married, she heads for Austria where she tries unsuccessfully to reclaim the family property. She is also pregnant and returns to England where she reconciles with her father before he dies. Unmarried and a single mother, she creates a new life for herself. At the office of a Mr. Bernstein to apply for work, she overrides a dismissive secretary, loudly exclaiming in German that she must absolutely speak to Herr Bernstein! Excited that someone has spoken German and pronounced his name correctly, Bernstein is charmed. Even when he learns she is pregnant, he is philosophic about her honesty and gives her a job.
In the final scenes, Rosemarie meets with Anton and shows him his sleeping baby son. Unlike the restless Anton, she is resolute that England has become her home.
Where I Belong
OV English & German with subtitles
In cinemas starting 8 Aug.