October 2012

Arts & Letters

'Lore' by Cate Shortland (director)

By Fenella Souter

It’s spring 1945 and in a handsome German house deep in a forest, the Dressler family are preparing to flee. The unthinkable is on their doorstep: the Führer is losing the war; the victors are about to become the vanquished. Past and future are deftly sketched in the opening moments of Lore: a doomed German shepherd barks savagely in a blue night; rosy-cheeked children help to pack the family crystal and ferry documents to a bonfire stoked by their father, an SS officer freshly back from killing Jews and communists in Belarus. His harried wife, her Aryan elegance already coming apart at the seams, sorts through the study. The camera pauses on a ringbinder marked ‘Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring – CONFIDENTIAL’.

This beautifully shot, powerful and tense work from Australian director Cate Shortland (Somersault) is based on Rachel Seiffert’s novel, The Dark Room, about postwar German guilt and contrition. The film centres on the couple’s eldest daughter, Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), creamy-skinned, blue-eyed and reflexively Hitler-loving. She’s a Wagnerian maiden in braids about to be rudely awoken from the spell cast over the land.

When her parents are taken away by the Allies, the teenager must lead her four young siblings across a stunned, divided Germany to their grandmother’s northern home, in a journey that is part fairytale, part Dantesque descent as Lore is exposed to the real Reich that has been festering beneath her untroubled existence in Bavaria. It takes her some time to understand that her kind of German is now the wrong one, and even then she’s not quite sure why. There’s bewilderment when she gives a “Heil Hitler” to a German farmer only to receive an annoyed grunt in reply. Her confusion spikes when the young family’s fortunes come to rest on the shoulders of a Jewish refugee, Thomas (Kai Malina). Lore wrestles with mistrust, and lust.

Shortland’s film, loaded with stunning images, is lyrical but tough. It could have settled for cliché – girl realises Nazi parents were evil – but instead presents something closer to the complicated, misguided dream of an arrogant nation. The Holocaust, though mentioned only obliquely, is monstrously present. In a centre where the Americans have pinned up photos of the death camps, Lore overhears a conversation that sounds like a black joke: “I had to look at dead Jews for hours just to get bread,” says one man. “Yes, but you got two loaves,” says the other. There are no laughs for Lore, however. The uniformed officer in one of the photos is her father.

Fenella Souter

Fenella Souter is a Sydney-based feature writer.

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