It took years for our fictions to consider the Holocaust narrative. And for an even longer time, a stunned silence hovered over the fate of “Hitler’s children” — ordinary Germans during and after World War II. That embargo, too, is lifting, with a significant trickle of novels, movies and television dramas that imagine what it felt like to be the inheritors of the worst that humans can do to other humans.
Lore, a new film by writer-director Cate Shortland (Somersault), is based on The Dark Room, a novel by Rachel Seiffert about the dilemmas faced by children of Nazis or Nazi collaborators. But Seiffert, who lives in England, drew sympathetically on her German grandmother’s experiences in the immediate aftermath of World War II; Shortland, who’s Australian, directs a less forgiving gaze on the eponymous teenage girl trying to steer her four younger siblings through a ravaged Germany in 1945.
Abruptly separated from her Nazi parents when they are imprisoned after the German surrender, Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) gathers up her sister, her twin brothers and the family’s new baby. Armed with little more than a fistful of her mother’s jewelry, Lore struggles to make her way through a countryside in free fall, arbitrarily carved up into three zones by the Americans, the Russians and the British.
The landscape they travel is lush and green — and littered with flyblown corpses, gutted ruins and temporary shelters overwhelmed by displaced refugees scrabbling for food, clothing and somewhere to sleep. Like Lore, they have little left to cling to but tattered illusions and their desperate efforts to explain away the damning photographs of emaciated Jewish bodies posted in plain sight by the Americans.
Trying to shore up her belief in “the final victory” promised by her adored father (Hans-Jochen Wagner) and the Fuhrer himself, Lore encounters a bewildering mix of hostility, indifference and grudging kindness from her fellow casualties. Brutal barter is the order of the day, and when Thomas (Kai Malina) — an enigmatic young stranger carrying the papers of a Jew from the Buchenwald concentration camp — attaches himself to the bedraggled family, Lore finds herself caught between the reflexive anti-Semitism in which she’s been schooled and the need for a protector to help ferry her siblings to safety at their grandmother’s house in Hamburg. A twisted bond grows between Lore and Thomas, at once fragile and infused with a warped sexuality that’s not in the original novel, compromised from one minute to the next by the possibility of abandonment or betrayal.
Shortland’s camera creates a world that’s shockingly fractured, shot at weird angles and pocked with truncated body parts, heads hanging upside down and undefined realities filled with quiet dread. Never mind that we already know what Lore can’t permit herself to discover: We see what she sees, and begin to comprehend as she does when no further denial is possible.
Trying to make sense of this chaotic universe, Lore is filled with despair, not least at the small atrocities that she and Thomas are forced by their circumstances to commit. She knows; she doesn’t know; and it’s not until she and her depleted family reach the seeming haven of her grandmother’s home that Lore gives vent to pent-up rage. Only now her anger is directed at its deserving source — the fallen idols she must now acknowledge as criminals.
Unlike Seiffert’s novel, Shortland’s film ends in a minor orgy of destruction visited upon a sentimental symbol of Lore’s shattered harmony. The climax Shortland offers us is much harder to take than Seiffert’s gentler vision, yet far more evocative of the bitter price paid by the children of the Third Reich for the sins of their parents.
One longs to know what becomes of Lore and her unenviable cohort. Here’s some Monday-morning quarterbacking: Project Seiffert’s Lore into her country’s political future, and she’s the equivocal voice of German social democracy — cautious, placatory, inclined to see all sides of the question. Pay Shortland’s Lore forward, and she’s running the Baader-Meinhof gang. (Recommended)