Growing up will be difficult for this young German girl. She will have to look after her siblings, deal with the usual coming-of-age awkwardness, and come to terms with her parents’ roles in the greatest crimes of the Twentieth Century. Yet, viewers will never shake the awareness that millions had a far more terrifying road to travel than the title character of Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland’s German language Lore (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
The war is in its final hours and the Allies are clearly going to win. This is distressing news for Hannelore’s mother and father. He is an SS officer. She is a leading academic apologist for the Third Reich. Anticipating capture, her parents seem more concerned about burning documents (and shooting the dog) than their children’s safety. In fact, it falls to Lore to schlep her younger sister Liesel, twin brothers Jurgen and Gunther, and the infant Peter nine hundred kilometers to the presumed safety of their grandmother’s house.
Somehow, Lore intuitively understands how profoundly their fortunes have reversed. Where once her parents’ positions in the regime gave the family influence and prestige, it is now a source of fear and shame. Thinking it best to avoid the occupying forces and domestic opportunists, Lore takes her siblings through the Black Forest and over back roads as much as possible. Yet, even in their limited interaction with strangers, word reaches them of the horrors discovered at the concentration camps. People do not want to believe it, but Lore reluctantly realizes there might just be something to it all.
Obviously, Lore and her charges are highly vulnerable to the malevolent drifters and deserters they encounter. However, they might find a protector in Thomas, whose papers identifying him as a former prisoner of the camps seem to provide him safe passage. He is a bit of a mystery man, but his interest in Lore is hard to misinterpret.
Rather faithfully based on the novella by Rachel Seiffert, the tone of Lore is closer to Andrea Arnold’s boldly reconceived Wuthering Heights than any traditional war or Holocaust drama. Yet, where the austere scenes of natural ruggedness root viewers in Arnold’s vision, that lack of context in Lore is glaringly distracting.
Yes, we know what has happened during the war, but Lore directly invites viewers to sympathize with a privileged daughter of the perpetrators. One cannot help suspect if we were to see events from the eyes of a former prisoner of the camps, the forbidding wilderness scenes might look like considerably less fearsome. While it is intriguing to observe Lore process the moral implications of her parents’ actions and allegiances, it inevitably begs the question just how willfully blind was she while her parents’ Fuhrer was in power?
Saskia Rosendahl is quite impressive as Lore, withstanding the open exposure of Shortland’s many quiet close-ups. Likewise, Kai Malina projects a genuine sense of danger (sexual and otherwise) as Thomas. However, the other assorted sister and brothers are more like props for Lore to drag about.
Agonizingly paced, Lore allows the audience too much time to analyze what is not there. As a result, the degree to which the film skirts the difficult realities of German war crimes becomes maddeningly conspicuous. As a nature survival tale, Lore is rather slow and introverted. As a commentary on WWII it is wholly incomplete. It works best as a coming of age story, but Rosendahl’s work is still not sufficient to earn it a forceful recommendation. For admirers of Shortland and Seiffert, Lore opens this Friday (2/8) in New York, uptown at the Lincoln Plaza and downtown at the Angelika Film Center.