FEW FILMS DRAMATIZING the effects of the Second World War on the families of Nazis or Nazi sympathizers have managed to overcome the understandably queasy reluctance of international audiences to embrace the subject. The number of awards loaded on the Australian/German co-production Lore will no doubt facilitate its marketability, though the film’s merits are not entirely unalloyed. Directed by Cate Shortland and based on Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room—a novel that spans several generations—Lore concentrates only on the middle story, focusing on the young protagonist of its title and the premature burden she assumes when her parents’ lives are compromised with the fall of Germany in 1945. As everything collapses around them, Father (Hans-Jochen Wagner), who, as an incriminating photo later confirms, participated in the interment and killing of Jews, moves the family into the relative seclusion of the Black Forest. Shortly after he goes off to almost certain imprisonment, Mother (Ursina Lardi) leaves to join him, believing the children will be less prone to discovery without her, and instructs Lore to take her siblings to their grandmother’s home in Hamburg.
Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) embarks on the journey, leading her four siblings through the multi-occupied Allied zones of the recently destroyed German state. In order to sustain their will to walk on, she tells her younger sister and their twin brothers that they will reunite with their parents in Hamburg, though she knows this is untrue. Trading food for the little money and the few pieces of jewelry her mother leaves her, their plight becomes suspicious to unsympathetic locals. They are soon joined by Thomas (Kai Malina), an intense young man who has survived a concentration camp, knows his way around border guards, and carries official papers along with the yellow Jewish star. Appealing to the sympathies of American soldiers, he claims to be Lore’s older brother, lies about their time in the camps, and helps the group through the trickier passages of their journey. This includes a rather unsavory episode—not in the novella—where in order to obtain a boat to cross a river, Lore plays to the lascivious interests of a local boatman as Thomas bashes his brains in with a rock. In another instance, while trying to enter the British zone one of the twins ignores Thomas’s instructions and is shot by Russian soldiers. As unexpectedly as Thomas enters their lives, he exits, at which point Juri, the surviving twin, shows Lore the wallet he stole hoping to prevent Thomas from going. As she peruses it, we learn that Thomas had stolen the identification papers from a Jewish prisoner “already dead,” making us question whether Thomas himself is Jewish.
In general, Shortland’s approach avoids the mawkish and sentimental pitfalls that plague such material, and the film is so well acted that it is hard to believe that Lore and her siblings are not actually related. It is also effectively constructed and impressively photographed, the lyrical lushness of the German countryside at odds with the horror of the events. All the more disappointing that Shortland and co-writer Robin Mukherjee betray the novel’s subtler style by descending on occasion to the crude and sensational. The boatman’s murder is a case in point. Its message—that even the “innocent” may resort to violence in wartime—is as bludgeoning as the act visited upon the unsuspecting victim. Lore’s later remark to Thomas under her breath, “What have we done?” only underlines the obvious. More credible, though just as untrue to the source, are the titillating touches induced by Thomas’s frustrated desire for Lore and her cruel rebuffs that clearly imply her repugnance of his Jewishness. While their silent, erotically charged interactions are compelling and befit their ages, they are inventions of the screenwriters.
The mystery of Thomas’s real identity has the desired ironic effect, but it also sets up a conclusion that reverses Seiffert’s more disturbing open-ended denouement. As a symbol of arriving safely at grandmother’s house, Lore places the small porcelain deer she has kept intact through the journey on a table with others, symbolically reconnecting it to the world before the nightmare of Nazism and the war. Soon after, however, when grandma upbraids Juri at the dinner table for poor manners, Lore repeats his behavior, stuffs bread in her mouth, and spills milk on the table, after which she destroys all the porcelain figurines.
Following this display of rebellion against order, we last see her thumbing through Thomas’s wallet and looking more thoughtfully at the photos of the Jewish prisoner’s family. While this telegraphs what Lore has learned about the world and the lives of others, it also strains for the kind of comforting reassurance that Seiffert avoids. Her conclusion has no confrontation scene at the dinner table and leaves us with an image of Lore looking forward to a vaguely amnesiac future. Preferring to redeem Lore and explicitly condemn the blindness and denial that engulfed Germany for decades, Shortland somewhat softens the brute honesty of her otherwise affecting movie.
Lore opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, February 8th.