Cate Shortland’s Lore offers a portrait of Nazi Germany rarely seen in mainstream films: Told from the point of view of a 14-year-old daughter of a Third Reich official, the film shows the horrific waning days of World War II from the purview of the defeated. We see a man who has shot himself. A woman cries to a picture of Hitler, “We broke his heart! He loved us so much.” Dead bodies populate the countryside as the girl and her younger siblings journey to reunite themselves with their family. This naturally begs the question of whether any movie can really be made about the plight of (relatively) innocent Nazi children without apologizing for the atrocities of the Third Reich, even if unintentionally.
This is one of the many fascinating, unsettling, and ultimately unsolved questions that make Lore a compelling motion picture and one of the best early movies of 2013. The film stars Saskia Rosendahl in a mesmerizing performance as Lore, the oldest of five children, who is told by her mother to seek refuge at a distant relative’s house while she and her father enter a prison camp. Thus, Lore, her younger sister, her twin brothers, and a newborn are forced to make their way across Germany peddling whatever jewelry and scrap goods they can find for food and shelter.
On one level, Lore is a fairly conventional survival story emphasizing sacrifice and endurance. Along the journey, Lore learns to adapt to whatever precarious situation she finds herself in, all while trying to maintain her dignity. At one point, she cajoles a woman into breastfeeding the baby (demanding that she clean herself beforehand) and at another point, she uses her burgeoning sexuality to entice a boorish man to take the family across a river. But all these situations would be even more conventional for the audience were it not for the fact that, like much of defeated Germany in 1945, Lore continually refuses to accept the defeat of the Third Reich. She hides her brothers and sister from Allied troops, and keeps in her pocket a picture of her decorated father. We cannot help but wonder if all the sacrifice and endurance she gains, however admirable, is not simply borne out of a stubborn refusal to accept defeat. But, in Lore’s defense, maybe the answer has more to do with the misguided fears and rumors she has heard of what American officials will do if they find fleeing Nazis.
One question I found myself asking during Lore was at what age do children simply regurgitate the beliefs their parents have instilled, and at what age do they become responsible for their own beliefs. This question becomes key in the movie when another major character is introduced: Thomas, a young man who follows the siblings and occasionally aids them out of perilous circumstances. (MILD SPOILERS AHEAD) Lore is initially suspicious of Thomas, and her worst fears are realized when she finds out Thomas is a Jew, and a survivor at Buchenwald. This is the point where Lore differentiates itself from lesser, more obvious approaches to similar subject matter. Instead of overcoming her bigotry, Lore continually treats Thomas as an inferior being, and this even extends to hints of a latent sexual relationship between the two. The movie ingeniously connects political and sexual awakening, but only in the subtle, vague ways two teenagers could possibly experience such awakenings. Like the ambiguous relationship between the white girl and the Aborigine in Walkabout, their bond is defined by the prejudices the two hold about each other and the power dynamics that seem to shift throughout their tryst. Do either Lore or Thomas ever have genuine feelings for one another? Or are they simply using each other for survival? We never really know the answer, which reflects the filmmaker’s reticence to offer the audience too much emotional linkage with any of the characters. If Lore was a novel, it would be told in omniscient third person.
Does Lore really change her beliefs over the course of the film? There’s certainly no emotional climax as in Schindler’s List where she asks aloud what more she could have done to save the Jews. The reality is that for a 14-year-old, such feelings and their ideological transformations are ambivalent and hard to pinpoint, which is what I loved about Lore. This is not to demean Schindler’s List, but it’s not hard to root for a man who saved 1,500 Polish Jews. It should not be hard to root for a brave teenager girl saving her family from capture, starvation and death, but that is precisely the provocative quandary in Lore. There are numerous times we cannot root for her. It is uncompromising – even at the end of the journey, when we expect (and hope) that Lore has learned something from her survival and experiences with Thomas, we get no clear answer.
There is only one criticism of the film, which is that the director, Cate Shortland, indulges too greatly in common art house aesthetic foibles. There are long passages of the film in complete silence and minimal camera movement, which seem oddly disparate from other, more effective scenes using shaky-cam to reinforce the immediacy of Lore’s displacement and fear. I don’t think it was Shortland’s intention to make a meditative art film, but on the other hand, I cannot entirely condemn her strategy because it is effective at showing us Lore’s innermost alienation. There are no bombs, tanks or soldiers here, and there is only one scene of gunfire (shown offscreen). The silence reinforces the fact that Lore and her family have, like many, been abandoned and forgotten in the midst of international political and military chaos. And while I wanted to criticize those long, seemingly out-of-place sequences, it is somewhat hypocritical for me to do so in a film so upfront with being uncompromising. There are rarely any satisfying conclusions we can have about the existential problem of the Holocaust, even 70 years later. Is not appropriate that its cinematic interpretations come with aesthetic lapses and inconsistencies?
Lore belongs on a shortlist of films from the past few decades which probe questions about the actions of youth during the Holocaust (other such films include The Dirty Girl, Europa Europa, Fatelessness, and, to a lesser extent, The Reader). I was reminded of the Primo Levi quote that more dangerous than true monsters are “the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.” In the case of Lore, the war has (thankfully) passed and she will ultimately be forced to enter a world in which Nazism has died a horrific death, along with the countless Jews and resistance fighters that suffered because of it. In many ways, the film is about Lore and Thomas coming to terms with the demise of their respective peoples, and how reconciliation is imperfectly achieved through rising social consciousness.
Rating: 4 stars