Ravishing, hideous journey
The second film of Australian director Cate Shortland (of the 2004 Somersault) is, surprisingly, almost entirely in German, though from the mind of an English writer. The screenplay has been developed from one of three self-contained stories in Rachel Seiffert’s 2001 novel The Dark Room, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The result is a film that’s both intimate and elliptical in its treatment of a wartime subject. It presents a crabwise but also almost excessively tactile and visceral child’s-eye view of a high ranking Nazi family at the time of the 1945 surrender (the POV linking the film in some minds to Haneke’s The White Ribbon). The focus is on the titular teenage girl Lore (short for Hannelore), played by the lovely, emotionally convincing newcomer Saskia Rosendahl, as she is forced by the dissolution of the Third Reich to lead her younger siblings on a perilous journey across 500 miles of German open country seeking safety when their family collapses. Most of the usual context of World War II films is left out in favour of the naive confusion of Nazi-indoctrinated children trying to survive in a dreamlike world where all is lost, as dimly begins to dawn upon them. Thanks to vivid performances and even more vivid cinematography this project works very well, despite some troubles with pacing in the middle passage.
Having burned incriminating documents but with no hope of avoiding Nazi culpability their father (“Vati,” Hans Jochan Wagner), an SS officer, knowing it is the end, returns to the front, while their mother (“Mutti,” Ursina Lardi) turns herself over to the Americans, telling Lore to take her siblings on the train to Hamburg and trek across the mud to find their grandmother (“Omi,” Eva Maria Hagen).
There is a sense of people as baggage, notably the baby, Peter, seemingly always crying, but sometimes an asset in eliciting food from Germans who are ill inclined to help these hitherto privileged youngsters. It’s hard enough for Lore to herd her younger sister Liesel (Nele Trebs) and the two smaller twins, Günther (André Frid) and Jürgan (Mika Seidel). There is denial by all when it turns out the Americans have posted photos of emaciated concentration camp prisoners and corpses on walls outside every town. But the main thing Lore winds up having to master is her confused feelings toward Thomas (Kai-Peter Malina), a young man who spots her in a village and keeps turning up, so we know there will be a confrontation. Eventually Thomas, whose Jewish ID may give him favour in the eyes of American soldiers, helps the kids out of a tight spot by claiming to be their brother, and he becomes their protector and helper. Like any good Nazi-indoctrinated girl Lore is disgusted by Thomas when she sees the star of David on his papers and doesn’t even want him to touch her siblings, despite his helpfulness, which she interprets as self-serving. But then, in a development that may or may not seem convincing, she becomes attracted to him, as he is, reservedly, to her. Their back-and-forth toward each other is what slows down the action, even though it becomes the story’s ambiguous emotional centre.
Along the difficult journey comes a saturation in tactile experience, a little spoiled by the conventional violin, cello and piano background music, but greatly enhanced by what amounts to the second main element after the fine cast. What often steals the show is the gorgeous, ultra-tactile Super 16-to-DCP colour cinematography of the up and coming Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, who shot David Michôd’s memorably intense Animal Kingdom. One is ravished right from the start by the images — though sometimes one wonders if this is about displaced German young people or insects, dirty wet underwear, blood, bruises, or the gunk skin collects when bathing isn’t an option, or when it is, becomes a riot of flesh, wet underwear, and splashes. Arakapaw has a fine eye, but sometimes he looks a little too close, and his unsteady-cam work and fascination with twigs, plants, and small critters becomes a little too expressionistic, in the manner of the summer sex scene in Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love.
But the images have a logic as part of an approach that avoids explanations, because the Germans are in denial, all is chaos, and the children can’t process what they’re seeing, so we’re deliberately prevented from going beyond sense impressions in order to identify more closely with them. Knowledge is dawning on Lore, but her younger siblings surely don’t know what the corpse of a woman who’s been brutally raped means. They don’t know, or can’t believe, what’s happened to their country, and to Hitler. “Is this the ultimate victory?” Lise at one point asks Lore. (One can find them stupid, and Lore unsympathetic, and still feel the tragedy.) They are at ground level, and everything is in their faces. Some of the interactions, like the moment when Lore takes Thomas’ hand and pushes it up her dress, are implausible. And some narrative transitions are leaps without links. But as in Bruno Dumont’s Hors Satan and Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, to name two other recent feats of visual primitivism, the beautiful-ugly lushness never stops delivering, nor do the small shocks and surprises in the action all along the way cease to provide a sense of lived experience.
Shortland’s collaboration on their adaptation with cowriter Robin Mukherjee (perhaps intentionally, if sometimes misguidedly) is not exactly a triumph of narrative coherence, but considering the number of scenes where the emotional transition is wordless (despite plenty of German dialogue), the direction is effectively seamless and forceful. Within the limitations, Lore is a strong and original film, and a feather in the caps of its star, director, and dp.
Lore is in cinemas 22nd February 2013.
DIRECTOR: CATE SHORTLAND
WRITER: CATE SHORTLAND AND ROBIN MUKERJE (BASED ON THE BOOK “THE DARK ROOM” BY RACHEL SEIFFRT)
STARS: SASKIA ROSENDAHL, KAI-PETER MALINA, NELE TREBS, ANDRÉ FRID, MIKA SEIDEL,URSINA LARDI,HANS-JOCHEN WAGNER, EVA MARIA HAGEN
RUNTIME: 100 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: GERMANY, AUSTRALIA