“You must remember who you are,” a mother tells her daughter as she leaves the nest. In so many other films this would be an inspirational touchstone, the guiding light for a child thrown into the adult world all too soon. “There’s no place like home” comes to mind. Yet Lore, Australian director Cate Shortland‘s powerful sophomore feature, gives us no such comfort. The mother offering the advice is a woman on the run, her husband a high-ranking Nazi officer wanted by the Americans. It is the spring of 1945, Hitler is dead, and European identity has never been more fluid or fragile.
Hannelore (Saskia Rosendahl) is the eldest of five children, now left without parents as World War Two comes to a chaotic and violent conclusion. Beside her is younger sister Liesel, twin boys Günther and Jürgen, and baby Peter. Lore’s only option is to lead them 900 kilometers north from the Black Forest to their grandmother’s home in Husum, crossing three borders that did not exist just a few months before. These children, products of the Hitler Youth and their parents’ fervently Fascist generation, step into the tumultuous partition of their country as everything they have ever known and believed in comes crashing down.
At first, Lore does her utmost to follow her mother’s advice and hold on to the inflexible morality with which she was raised. Yet this is bound to crack. It isn’t simply that everything she knew has been demolished, her country split with entirely new and arbitrary borders, but at 14, her life is changing for the most basic of reasons. Teenagers lose track of who they are even in the safest of conditions; for Lore to hold on in this context would be absurd.
Shortland couples her protagonist’s natural sexual confusion with her political anxiety, leading to the introduction of the film’s most dangerous character. Thomas first emerges as a figure lurking alongside Lore’s journey, eyeing her with an almost fevered desire. He follows her and her siblings along the road to the north, stalking them like a wolf. However, in this period of constant flux, everything can change in an instant.
Lore and her siblings are stopped by American soldiers who will inevitably take them into custody. Thomas steps in and claims to be their brother and, stunningly, purports that they are all Jewish refugees from Auschwitz. For Lore, this is too much to process. Here is a man who has saved their journey and perhaps their lives, and who is also a Jew. He continues to travel with them, helping them cross borders and taking responsibility for their safety. Lore finds herself caught between disgust, gratitude and, eventually, growing attraction. This nuanced approach to her shifting sexual and emotional perspective is the film’s core, as powerfully and tenderly articulated as Abbie Cornish’s character in Shortland’s stunning Somersault.
That being said, Lore might be more reminiscent of Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa than Shortland’s 2004 debut. Potter uses the 1960s to make political tumult a metaphor for adolescent trauma and vice versa, a twinning that drives this film as well. Moreover, they look quite a bit alike. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw lends Lore the windswept, elemental feel that also fuels Robbie Ryan’s work with Potter and Andrea Arnold. Arkapaw’s images highlight the natural world, framing Lore and her siblings with a physically close yet emotionally distant eye.
This is the antithesis of the propaganda films of the 1930s, as well as of the cleaner and arguably less nuanced World War Two dramas of the past few decades. The camera here is no tool of thematic compression, but rather the conduit for the ambiguity of both the period and the way it manifests in Lore’s journey.
Shortland also draws attention to other images within the film through omnipresent photographs and documents. Lore’s brother brings along a pocket-sized portrait of his father in full Nazi uniform, the ideal German paterfamilias leading his family and his nation into battle. Lore holds this relic of her former life close to another photo she picks up along the way: one of the images of the victims of the Holocaust proliferated by the Allied forces. These are the two visual keys to her German identity, however seemingly incompatible they might be. And, together with Thomas’s passport, they are among the most potent symbols in the film.
Lore has been called a spiritual sequel to The White Ribbon, and rightly so. Michael Haneke’s chilling exploration of youth seeks to explain the origins of Fascism in Germany through the brutal Protestant culture of the turn of the century. The White Ribbon is a brutal film because its subjects are brutal. They are Lore’s parents. Shortland’s work, on the other hand, offers a glimmer of hope. Lore, child of the Third Reich, is given the opportunity to smash the idols of her upbringing. While the older generations in Lore are portrayed as stubborn and psychologically fragile in the wake of defeat, Lore herself becomes a pillar of strength, however confused.
Shortland may not leave us with certainty, but in the context of so bloody a conflict fueled by intransigence and misguided idealism, the hope and the beauty of Lore is only strengthened by its embrace of youthful uncertainty.
The Upside: Saskia Rosendahl gives the debut performance of the year.
The Downside: Jürgen and Günther are twins, and it’s hard to tell them apart. Really, this is the worst thing I can come up with.
On the Side: This was Australia’s submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, though it was passed over.
Lore opens in limited release starting February 8th