Film Review: Lore

Brilliant, harrowing period drama about a German teen and her younger siblings struggling to survive after their high-ranking SS officer father and equally ardent Nazi mother are arrested by the Allies.

With this lacerating Australia/Germany/U.K. co-production, Cate Shortland follows up her stunning 2004 theatrical feature debut Somersault, about sexual awakening, with something more profound—a powerful post-World War II saga about a different kind of awakening. Lore functions as adventure, war drama, family portrait, mystery and road movie (albeit on mostly blocked roads). This gem should score with the art-house crowd and will certainly bring home war spoils in ancillaries.

Lore begins in the spring of 1945 in Germany, as the Allies close in and bigwig Nazi SS family patriarch Vati (Hans-Jochen Wagner), in his spacious Bavarian villa, prepares his and his family’s escape by burning documents and shooting the family dog. Vati is caught, but wife Mutti (Ursina Lardi) and their five children, including most prominently 14-year-old Lore (impressive newcomer Saskia Rosendahl), flee to the countryside.

They find shelter in what seems to have been the family’s rustic country getaway, but soon Mutti also lands in Allied hands and is gone. That leaves Lore with four younger siblings in tow: sister Liesel (Nele Trebs), twins Jurgen (Mika Siedel) and Gunter (André Frid) and baby Peter (Nick Leander Holaschke). Their desperate mission, on Lore’s shoulders, is to travel many hundreds of miles north to the Hamburg area to find safety with their beloved grandmother Omi (renowned actress and singer Eva-Maria Hagen, the real-life mother of rock legend Nina Hagen). Roaming through the fields, forests, beleaguered shelters and bombed-out homes of a devastated Germany and scavenging for food (raw eggs on the menu here), Lore and her brood encounter hunger, suffering, poverty, desperation, death, and other horrors.

Most significantly, they meet the enigmatic and attractive young refugee Thomas (Kai Malina), who, at first an unsavory type, becomes their savior when Lore has a dangerous encounter. But the mysterious Thomas remains aloof yet close to the youths. When Lore learns—through a ruse perpetrated by one of her brothers—that he may be Jewish and fled a concentration camp, she is repulsed.

She has been carefully taught to hate Jews. But might Thomas become the man who brings her to womanhood? Is he really Jewish? Lore also learns, through photos displayed at one of their shelters, that her beloved Vati might have been a mass murderer in the Nazi grand plan of annihilation. The film shows its hand in a final scene that is the raison d’être for all that has preceded and is what leaves a lasting impact, even giving meaning to a kitschy deer trinket seen at the outset.

Shortland, in her sensational acclaimed debut Somersault, launched another new teen talent “revelation” with Abbie Cornish. Rosendahl in Lore is also quite a find but in a less showy role that is probably even more challenging to portray.

All in all, the film is beautifully cast and German interiors and locations (all rural) are all very convincing for the period. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw embraces that familiar power of the close-up and, in the countryside, beautifully captures and evokes what might be called a pastorale of the dark side.

On the narrative front with Shortland and Robin Mukherjee’s solid, powerfully spare adaptation of a portion of Rachel Seiffert’s novel The Dark Room, Lore daringly and effectively suggest aspects within the German psyche and mores that allowed the Holocaust and its many years of the murder of innocent millions to happen. As a Film Society of Lincoln Center blogger observed, Lore is like a sequel to Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon.

The film is often punishing but will also be exhilarating for that segment of filmgoers appreciative of an immersive, thought-provoking experience dealing with the unending curse and causes of war and evil, insights that only the most gifted and skilled of filmmakers can realize and convey.