Written by Cate Shortland and Robin Mukherjee
Directed by Cate Shortland
It’s not new for a storyteller to use war as a coming-of-age metaphor. From Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun to the Hughes Brothers’ Dead Presidents, fiction is replete with examples of youth shattered and re-formed by the horror of war. The lack of novelty in that idea does not punish Cate Shortland’s new film Lore at all. In fact it may be among the most powerful expressions of the coming-of-age concept, ever.
Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is the eldest of five children in a well-to-do German family at the end of World War II. Of course, because Lore’s parents are good Nazis they would not fare well in the post-war period, and the “well-to-do” part will not last long. Soon Lore is left in charge, trying to take her sister and three brothers to a safe place in a land where the law has ceased to rule.
As that synopsis might suggest, Lore is a wrenching experience. Every imaginable horror that can accompany war is on display. Even beyond that is Shortland’s eerie familiarity with the nature of denial, and the lies that Lore and all Germany are willing to tell themselves in order to assuage the despair of defeat. There are some gory moments in Lore, but none of them can match the ugliness of watching Germans claim that the American photos from Auschwitz and Buchenwald were faked.
Rosendahl’s performance is an eye-opener, although perhaps not perfect because Lore is constantly holding back. Any slip-ups could lead to the death of one or all of the siblings in her charge, so the script calls for Lore to be pent up often. Rosendahl doesn’t do “pent up” well. She’s at her strongest when allowing Lore to feel something, anything, even if her feelings don’t make any sense. They don’t need to make sense; Lore is still a child, after all.
The strongest aspect of Lore is that it is a stunningly beautiful movie. Contemplative insert shots of the Black Forest – a snail crawling on a tree branch or mushrooms lining a foot path – are enough to take one’s breath away. Moreover, Shortland has an uncanny knack to create compositions which sell Lore’s thoughts and feelings perfectly for the scene in question. Every scene contains some mix of tension, intimacy, and contemplation, and Shortland’s camera is always at the perfect distance to create the correct mixture.
In the right light it may be possible to compare this film with Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon: the cruel children in Haneke’s film will grow up to become Lore’s parents, and the seeds of horror that they planted will be sown by Lore’s generation. But in the end, Shortland is not interested in that angle nearly as much as she is interested in Lore herself. Lore is forced to learn far more about herself than any teenager ever ought to, under the greatest pressure imaginable. A series of incredible scenes end the film, displaying the full impact of that pressure upon her and leaving an indelible impression upon the audience.