Cate Shortland enjoyed such extravagant success with Somersault, her debut feature of 2004, that it is no surprise she has taken her time to come up with film number two. The surprise is that she has made a German movie, not an Australian one. Although Shortland has drawn on Australian production skills and funding, Lore is a German language film with German actors.
Like its predecessor, Lore is a young girl’s coming-of-age drama, but there the resemblance ends. A stark tale of children finding their way through a war-torn landscape, the film has more in common with Russian classics such as Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962), or Elem Klimov’s brutal Come and See (1985). Anybody who thinks Shortland’s film is harrowing should sample Klimov’s view of the Second World War.
Lore (Saskia Rosendhal) is the eldest daughter of a Nazi officer living in Bavaria. The war is ending and the Germans are preparing for the retribution of the Allies. As the father makes a bonfire of incriminating documents the rest of the family flees their comfortable bourgeois home to seek refuge in a cottage in the woods. After a time, the mother is called to face the courts, leaving Lore, her sister, twin brothers, and baby Peter, to fend for themselves.
Their only hope is to make their way, mostly on foot, to their grandmother’s house in Hamburg. The journey is long and painful. The family is stripped of their former dignity and forced to witness the humiliation of a defeated nation. As the children make their way through a land in which people have grown ugly in the quest for survival, Lore begins to realise the true nature of the regime she had been brought up to worship.
At their lowest ebb they are helped by a mysterious boy called Thomas (Kai-Peter Malina), a Jewish refugee from an internment camp. Thomas is attracted to Lore with a simmering lust that always threatens to ignite. Lore has to overcome an upbringing that has taught her Jews are filthy and evil. She is coming into her sexual maturity, and her responses to Thomas are a confused mixture of attraction and repulsion.
Based on Rachel Seiffert’s 2001 novel, The Dark Room, this is a story that could easily have descended into melodrama or gratuitous violence. Shortland avoids these pitfalls, keeping the tension alive throughout the journey. Whatever brutalities are inflicted on Lore and her family, the most vivid conflicts occurs in the girl’s mind, as she grapples with a series of devastating realisations.
These awakenings do not arrive like beats on a drum, they are filtered into the story almost imperceptibly. Little by little, Lore sees there was nothing heroic about the Reich, the Fuhrer, or her parents. She sees the people around her clinging to their tattered illusions. Such revelations are bound up with a growing awareness of her own sexual identity, and the emotional upheavals that entails.
This is not as dark and claustrophobic as it sounds. From the very beginning, with its delicate shots of water dripping from the girl’s hair, Lore is an extraordinarily beautiful piece of cinematography, with frames composed in almost painterly fashion.
The power of the movie resides in this mixture of beauty and horror, aesthetic finesse and human degradation. It is a stark illustration of the ideas of ‘bare life’, put forward by the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben – of life without rights, without duties or obligations. Such an idea makes us ask where lies the value of life when the rituals of civilisation are stripped away or found to be false? Shortland suggests we may find beauty and perhaps a raison d’etre in confronting the truth.
Lore, Australia/Germany/UK, rated MA 15+, 109 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, September 29, 2012