Featuring: Saskia Rosendahl, Kai Malina, Ursina Lardi, Nele Trebs, Mika Seidel, André Frid, Hans-Jochen Wagner, Eva-Maria Hagen
Director: Cate Shortland
Writers: Cate Shortland, Robin Mukherjee (based on a story from The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert)
Australian release date: Thursday, 20th September, 2012
Review 1: rolanstein
Review 2: Karen
Germany is on its knees at the end of WW11. The Allies have carved the country into three zones, occupied by the Americans, Russians and British. With her SS officer father fleeing the family and her Nazi mother (Ursina Lardi) turning herself in to the Americans, teenager Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) finds herself entrusted with the task of shepherding her younger siblings 900km through her devastated country to the sanctity of their grandmother’s rural home outside Hamburg. Filthy, starving, and confronted by a bewildering and terrifying set of consequences and truths at odds with everything she has been led to believe by her parents and the Nazi propaganda machine, Lore has no choice but to accept the help of a Jewish concentration camp survivor with a questionable agenda, Thomas (Kai Malina), who helps them to negotiate their way through an apocalyptic world of uncertainty, degradation and constant threat.
Review 1: (rolanstein)
Germany’s immediate-post-war history has been largely ignored by filmmakers, the brilliant Downfall being the only relatively recent exception that comes to mind. It struck me as I watched Lore that this period has been virtually overlooked by historians, also (who cares about the vanquished aggressors?). Certainly, none of the war history that made its way into my school education included anything on it. And despite living in Germany for almost a year in the 80s, during which never a day passed without my thinking of the war, I know nothing of this time.
Astute of Cate Shortland to recognise its dramatic potential in adapting Rachel Seiffert’s story to the screen. But how well does she realise that potential?
Quite well. The movie is gripping, though gruelling (as it should be) in relentlessly confronting the viewer with the misery, humiliation and desolation of a fallen nation of people whose grandiose image of themselves has been smashed to rubble, along with their cities and infrastructure. It must have seemed like the end of the world, and this is how it is depicted. Food is scarce, conditions are dire, and civilisation has been stripped away. People are in survival mode, living on their wits, begging, stealing, trading anything they have for the most basic provisions. Shelter is where you find it: barns, deserted ruins, abandoned schools.
The apocalyptic aftermath of war…a bit like post-Gunns Tasmania
But the privations of this miserable, dispossessed population are not merely material. They are spiritually wrecked, psychically scarred, seduced into believing in the twisted Nazi nationalistic and racist version of Nietzsche’s Übermensch concept, now betrayed by the lies and left to suffer the consequences. Hard to feel much sympathy for the adults who bought the Nazi line – how could a whole nation fall for this shit? – but what of the innocents, like Lore, the children of Nazi parents too young to question the distortions and propaganda?
Lore’s inner conflict and identity crisis is that of her entire generation, as she seeks to deny her growing awareness that the values she has inherited cannot be reconciled with all she now sees around her. There is a pivotal scene in which she compares a photograph of her father in SS uniform with one of a group of Nazi officers overseeing the mass slaughter of Jews. It is not clear whether she recognises her father among those present at this atrocity, but her subsequent action leaves no doubt that in this moment she has lost her innocence: she buries both pictures beneath some straw. She has made the connection between her father and the atrocities of the Reich, and has now played an active part in concealing the awful truth.
This, of course, ups the ante in her relationship with Thomas, the Jewish concentration camp survivor with whom she has reluctantly teamed up. In accordance with the poison she has been fed all her life, she sees him as vermin, aligning with him only because he has taken on a protector role, a despised Moses leading her and the siblings entrusted to her care through the hellish ruins and forest wilderness to the Promised Land of family and safety represented by her distant grandmother’s rural home in the far north. But with the recognition of her father’s complicity in the crimes of the Reich, the collapse of the very foundations of her belief system are imminent. How will this play out in her relationship with Thomas?
Thomas – leading man in a stunted coming-of-age story
Unfortunately, the film loses direction at this vitally significant junction, sidetracked by Lore’s engaging in a sexual dalliance with Thomas. Sure, life goes on in extreme conditions, but this is no setting for a coming-of-age tale. She and her siblings already have plenty invested in Thomas – more than enough to have her questioning her inherited perception of Jews. The sexual complication in her already complex relationship with him is dramatically unnecessary, and lacks credibility.
Lore and Thomas, like all around them, have not washed for weeks (reference is made to her “stinking like death”). They are dirty, and have bed bug sores. Hardly conducive to first sexual exploration. OK, I might be justly charged with imposing a middle class sensibility on to a situation I have no experience of, but my problems with the credibility of Lore’s sexual interaction with Thomas have other bases, not least of which is its nature. She places his hands on her ankles, then pulls them up her legs and under her dress. There is no other physical expression between them. Is it likely that a virgin teen would take an assertive role in being felt up like this (and it’s as clinical as it sounds – there is not the remotest sense of intimacy or affection between them)? I can’t see it.
Then there is the issue of her clinging to her perception of Jews as sub-human. Would she not, therefore, override her sexual attraction to Thomas? She has overriden most other aspects of her humanity – why not her sexuality?
This leads me to another shortfall in the movie. In taking on a maternal role with her young siblings in the most dire of circumstances, she has made herself something of a sacrificial lamb, denying her fears, her discomfort, her humanity, because it is the only way she can hold up. Indeed, her ability to switch off her humanity has a precedent: her mother does the same when leaving her to take care of her siblings, which include an unweaned baby (it’s a bit hard to accept that a mother would abandon a child this young under any circumstances…this is one of several non-crucial plot flaws).
Mutti the iceblock
However, Lore’s emotional numbness and absence of any real demonstration of vulnerability does not arouse much sympathy for her as a character. This detracts from the emotional power of the story, since she is its focal point. Indeed, she embodies the plight of an entire generation of young innocents. There’s a great tragedy in that, one that should kick us in the guts. It doesn’t. Only at the end of the movie, when her crippled humanity is manifest in the most trivial of contexts, is that emotional punch delivered with any oomph.
Another gripe: the cinematography. This is going to sound like sacrilege, given that the Director of Photography is the much lauded Australian, Adam Arkapaw. Talented though Arkapaw undoubtedly is (I loved his work in Animal Kingdom and Snowtown), I found the camerawork intrusive and distracting at times. There was far too much hand-held stuff, and the use of extreme closeups was excessive. And what’s with the foot fetish – there were numerous close-ups of feet, including equine ones! Sure, you can get all sorts of metaphorical readings out of this (obvious example: nomads of war wandering to who knows where), but why labour the point thus?
I’ve done more than my share of bitching. I fear I’ve given the impression that this is a deeply flawed film. It’s not. While it doesn’t build much on what you might imagine for yourself of the immediate aftermath of a lost war, it’s a convincing depiction of a harrowing and largely ignored period. It’s uniformly well acted (with Saskia Rosendahl the standout), and generally well directed. Overall, then, it’s good, very good at times. But with a bit of tweaking, some modifying of the coming-of-age element, and more work on Lore as a character, it might have been something special.
Review 2: (Karen)
Cate Shortland’s excellent debut feature film Somersault (2004), was a coming-of-age tale, and Lore (only her second feature) treats some of the same themes in the horrendous theatre of post-war Germany.
The Lore of the title is Hannelore, the eldest of five children who must walk many miles to their grandmother’s house after their SS parents have been imprisoned. The story is a kind of hero(ine)’s journey, as Lore must reexamine the past certainties of her life and come to new understandings which include acknowledging and coming to terms with the reality of her father’s role as an SS officer.
It’s a sombre matter, matched by a gloomy palette, and realised extraordinarily well with art direction and scene setting evoking a period of massive displacement in European history. Recurring images of trudging feet represent in miniature what was occurring on a large scale. It’s a period of confusion, lawlessness, rape, hunger, and desperation, where cunning, guile or dumb luck may help you survive – or not, as the case may be.
For adolescent Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), it is also a time of emerging sexuality. This theme is placed front and centre early, when Lore rises from her bath and watches from a window, naked, as her father arrives home after a period of absence. Still damp, she comes downstairs clad in a semi-sheer nightgown, and her father subjects her to appreciative scrutiny while her mother watches stony-faced. But the sex Lore subsequently witnesses – or its aftermath – is mainly rape, and the nearest young man is Thomas (Kai Malina), whom the children are forced into company with on their way, and he is Jewish, and therefore repugnant to her. Tricky material, and yet Shortland negotiates its intricacies without prurience or sentimentality.
The movement of displaced people is paralleled by a shift in their thinking as the awful facts of the concentration camps come to light. The disbelieving mutterings of various folk give expression to the process Lore herself must be going through as she recognises her father in one of the photographs. This is a clever device, externalising Lore’s struggle to come to terms with new information. There’s another clever device too, where camera angles skew and invert how Lore sees Thomas, matching her confusion.
Thomas, a concentration camp survivor, is no angel. Indeed, his teaming up with the children initially seems to be motivated by the fact they have their baby brother Peter with them, and this qualifies them for more food at aid stations. But he develops a genuine bond with the family, and helps them out with his survival skills. Lore herself is complicit with him in a criminal act of desperation.
Let’s be clear: this is not an enjoyable film to watch. It’s harrowing. I was absorbed in every frame. In the early scenes, I was worried when the baby was crying; later, I was terrified when he wasn’t. The children, solemn, and progressively dirtier and scabbier (but, thank heavens, no less well fleshed – I was prepared to suspend disbelief and accept that they were starving), were effortlessly adorable.
If I have a quibble with the characters at all, it’s the depiction of Lore’s parents and grandmother. Vati (Hans-Jochen Wagner) is a ham-fisted lover and quickly moved to violence, and Mutti (Ursina Lardi) is authoritarian and stoic to a fault in the face of her impending separation from the children. These are the “bad guys” – couldn’t they have had a tender redeeming moment somewhere?
Saskia Rosendahl as Lore is wonderful, although my advice to young aspiring actresses is: don’t get multiple ear piercings, they will be noticed by eagle eyed film goers!
Saskia Rosendahl as Lore, hair carefully arranged to hide evidence of ear piercings
I have another quibble about the film, and advice to Cate Shortland and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw: get a tripod! A moving camera suggests the point of view of one of the characters, not the cool impartial (albeit selective) directorial frame. Yet here it is constant – not used for that purpose – and occasionally offputting and confusing. However, this is a minor critique of a work that is hugely satisfying to watch and then reflect on. Even the ending, which does not neatly answer all questions, has a wonderful cathartic scene in which Lore rejects authoritarian strictures of culture and dramatically demonstrates a new allegiance to humanity, or perhaps humaneness; she also literally smashes the emblems of childhood innocence.
So, eight years between drinks for feature films by Cate Shortland. I hope we don’t have to wait so long for her next.
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