A version of this review appeared in The Age, September 22, 2012.
It takes a bold artist to find lyrical beauty in the fall of the Third Reich. For better or worse, one such artist is Cate Shortland, who swept the Australian Film Institute awards eight years ago with her first feature Somersault, starring Abbie Cornish, and now returns with another impressionistic coming-of-age drama centred on a languidly unsettled blonde teen.
Played by German newcomer Saskia Rosendahl, young Lore (pronounced “Laura”) is the oldest of five siblings left stranded after their Nazi parents vanish in the wake of the Allied victory. Like characters from the Brothers Grimm, they set out into the woods, across the war-torn countryside to their grandmother's house in Hamburg. Along the way, they encounter Thomas (Kai Malina), an enigmatic boy with a Jewish passport who takes them under his wing.
Rarely are even youthful Nazis portrayed in cinema as anything other than monsters. In its strongest moments, Lore has the uncanny quality of a trip through the looking glass, letting the protagonist keep our sympathy even as she parrots abhorrent views with naïve assurance. For her it's the American occupiers who stand for barbarism: “They kill all the children,” she warns one of her brothers when he misbehaves. Faced with photos of the death camps, she gazes intently but refuses to take the new information on board.
Moving through unfamiliar landscapes with hormones raging, it's a struggle for Lore to maintain her poise. Given her devout anti-Semitism, Thomas has all the attraction of the forbidden; the notion of a link between sexual knowledge and evil implicitly haunts her from the outset, when she glimpses her SS officer father (Hans-Jochen Wagner) pawing at her gaunt mother (Ursina Lardi). On one level the film is an exercise in dramatic irony: we know better than the characters, and await the crisis when their illusions will fall away. Yet the danger of sticking so closely to Lore's constricted perspective is that the historical setting becomes faintly unreal: at worst, the Holocaust is reduced to a symbol of the dark side of humanity in general, a backdrop for “universal” adolescent pangs.
Based on one strand of a 2001 British novel (Rachel Seiffert's The Dark Room) and filmed in Germany with an all-local cast, this co-production still has something ineffably Aussie in its DNA. Like her contemporaries Ivan Sen and Glendyn Ivin, Shortland thinks in terms of small visual epiphanies: her “poetic” style, which aims for tactile immediacy, tends towards a sophisticated form of kitsch. Shot on 16-milimetre film, typically with a handheld camera, Lore has a grainy, hazy glow that feels 21st-century in an artsy-crafty way, redolent of indie album covers or layouts in Frankie magazine. Embarking on her journey in a long floral dress, braids tightly wrapped around her head, Rosendahl looks model-pretty even as close-ups dwell on her bruises, scratches, blackened lips and grimy skin.
Other fragmentary close-ups reveal comparable organic textures and processes: moss growing on branches, toadstools poking out of the undergrowth, ants crawling across a corpse. A metaphysically-minded director such as Terrence Malick or Lars von Trier would have used these images to say something about the grandeur or malignity of existence as such. Shortland doesn't go that far: outside the nightmare of history, the natural world retains an amoral innocence, which could be said of Lore and her siblings as well.
In short, despite its fairy-tale trappings the film is committed to the muted naturalism that has long been the default idiom of Australian cinema. At each turning point, Lore must ask herself what she's prepared to sacrifice. Will she trade her mother's wedding ring? Will she offer sexual favours to a stranger? Yet she's never forced to make a radical choice between good and evil, while the other lead character, Thomas, remains a cipher. The symbolic final scene is shocking only in its banality – and next to an authentic post-war landmark such as Roberto Rossellini's Germany Year Zero (1948), the whole of Lore seems impossibly decorative and remote.