by George Sax
Cate Shortland’s Lore is an uncommon coming-of-age movie, sometimes disturbing and disorienting. It tells a tale of ethical and moral development in extreme circumstances, although its tone and treatment threaten to overwhelm it a few times.
Lore (short for Hannalore) is the 14-year-old daughter of a high-ranking SS officer and his wife in April of 1945. The Third Reich is collapsing in the wake of the Allies’ defeat of its armed forces and the death of Der Fuhrer. We first find Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) at her toilette at home in a muted, dreamy blue-tinged light. As she descends the stairs to be greeted by her uniform-clad father, the lighting harshens and the mood darkens. It will stay in this mode the rest of the picture, only worsening.
Her parents are frantically preparing to flee, taking measures that include shooting the family’s dog, and lying to Lore about this, as well as burning presumably incriminating documents. Then she and her four younger siblings are rushed to a rural hideaway. Only several days later the children are alone, their father first having left, followed by the mother. She gives Lore a little money and a few pieces of jewelry and tells her to take the other four to the train and go to their grandmother’s place near Hamburg. Lore is left in charge of this little flock, including an infant brother, Peter. But the railroad isn’t operating, and the children’s only option is to walk through the handsome but menacing Bavarian countryside on a perilous odyssey.
Adopted rather freely by Shortland and Robin Mukherjee from Rachel Seiffert’s novel The Dark Room, Lore follows the increasingly strange, difficult journey of these five toward the imagined refuge in the north. They start out pushing a baby carriage and carrying luggage, both of which are soon abandoned. At first Lore, who knows better, tries to keep up the pretense that their parents will meet them at their journey’s happy end, but soon the overriding need becomes a struggle for survival. The landscapes through which they move look oddly depopulated, buildings abandoned and the shocking evidence of death remaining to remind them of the war. The children frequently seem to be the only refugees on the roads and in the forests despite that war’s brutal disruptions. The very few farmers and peasants they encounter and from whom they seek assistance are mostly women and mostly unsympathetic. An older woman, alone and a diehard Nazi, makes the eight-year-old twin brothers, Günther and Jürgen, sing her a fascist anthem, the only thing that brings a smile to her face, and begs Lore to leave her Peter so she can beg food more easily.
Adam Arkapaw’s photography captures luminous natural vistas amid the damped-down chromatics of much of the rest of the movie. This beauty is a fleeting counterpart to the children’s grim ordeal. They sometimes seem to be traveling through post-apocalyptic settings; in a sense, they are. Shortland and Arkapaw emphasize this with blunt claustrophobic imagery, often extreme closeups of faces. The director also devotes closeup attention to very unpleasant details, some of them gruesome. Lore occasionally acquires a mild horror-film creepiness. This may increase the tension, but it comes to seem a little obsessive.
Things take an interesting turn narratively and tonally when the young fugitives meet Thomas (Kai Malina, who looks a little like a saturnine young Kevin Bacon), a mysterious young man of perhaps twenty, on the road. He gets them through an American Army patrol with quick thinking and his ID papers. (The only soldiers seen are GIs despite the fact the kids are said to be in the Russian zone.) Thomas takes the five under his wing for reasons that remain his own, foraging for food and carrying Peter in his arms. As the three others begin to bond with the taciturn, penetratingly dark-eyed man, Lore develops an attraction-repulsion reaction to him, based in part on the Jewish identity his papers give him. Thomas never comments on this or on her anti-Semitic condemnation of him. The not-so-implicit erotic element of their relationship is at one point implausibly sharpened when Lore places his hand up her skirt. Thomas’s motivations for shepherding the five remain inexplicit. His reticence is persuasive in Malina’s portrayal. Rosendahl’s Lore is impressively multifaceted. In the course of the movie she seems to age so that at the end it’s hard to believe she’s still fourteen; she looks like a marriageable young woman. Whether this is intentional isn’t clear, like much else.
Shortland’s approach favors atmospherics over plot revelations, and her movie can seem obscure. But its performances, the striking and harrowing ordeal it depicts, and the piercing poignance of its ending give Lore a humane gravity.
Watch the trailer for Lore
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