TIFF 2012: ‘Lore’ a solid, if occasionally muddled, Holocaust movie

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Directed by Cate Shortland
Written by Cate Shortland and Robin Mukherjee
Australia/United Kingdom/Germany, 2012

Carrying her infant brother in her arms, Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) and her siblings enter a building full of displaced people. The atmosphere is depressive, filled with the angst and despair of its occupants. Her baby brother is crying with hunger, but she can’t feed him. At only fourteen, she’s too young to breastfeed, and doesn’t know how.

Lore finds a woman with a child of her own and offers her some jewelry to act as a wet nurse. She obliges and proceeds to feed him. The crying stops, but Lore just stands there, weighed down by her sudden and unversed burden to sustain her brother’s life. Her mother used to breastfeed him, but she, and Lore’s father, was arrested. They were both Nazis. So is Lore.

Flash back to the beginning of the film. It’s the spring of 1945, and the occupying Allied forces are purging the last remnants of the German resistance. Lore’s father, Vati (Hans-Jochen Wagner), a high-ranking SS officer, hurries back home to his wife, Mutti (Ursina Lardi), and their five children. Burning all records of their personal and political history, Vati rounds up the family and flees.

Before long, both Vati and Mutti are captured and sent to prison camps, leaving Lore and her four siblings to fend for themselves. On the final behest of her mother, Lore and her remaining family embark on a daunting journey across war-torn Germany to their grandma’s house, finding eye-opening and life-changing obstacles on their way.

Although WWII movies have been done ad nauseam, Lore comes at it from a unique perspective – specifically, that of the titular fourteen-year-old girl. At a formative age, Lore is experiencing a whole host of malaises. On top of the responsibilities of being a guardian to her brothers and sister, Lore is also going through sexual maturity. And, on top of that, she is confronted with the atrocities of her once beloved Nazi party, shaking her belief in them and, by implication, her parents.

Lore finds that every pillar of her previous life was built upon a foundation of lies and propaganda. Thrust into adulthood all to soon and in a dire circumstance, Lore, much like her homeland, has to start over again from scratch. Her inner conflict and ambivalence is compulsively striking, and, thanks to Ms. Rosendahl’s equally compulsive debutant performance, the first half of the picture grabs you unequivocally.

However, the film hits a snag when Lore and company come across Thomas (Kai-Peter Malina), a Jewish survivor of a concentration camp. Initially hesitant, due to years of anti-Semitic indoctrination, Lore eventually succumbs to necessity and allows him into their group. He soon proves himself valuable, and there’s even a palpable bit of sexual tension between the two.

Beyond this summary, Thomas’ role in the film is poorly defined. For example, after a couple of awkward glances between the two, Thomas and Lore’s first real encounter involves him making an untoward sexual advance towards her. After being rejected, he proceeds to stalk them. In fact, he doesn’t prove useful at all until they all encounter a bunch of American soldiers. And even after his ingratiation, his fastidious attitude seems suspicious. Is his motivation to protect Lore and her family purely lecherous? Either way, his intentions feel incredibly spurious.

Despite this, Lore accepts him, and from that point on, Thomas serves as a litmus test for her ameliorating tolerance. The better she treats him and the more she values him (in more ways than one), the better we can measure her changing sentiments towards Jews and her repudiation of her past. In a sense, this kind of works, in the same way it did in American History X, despite the rocky circumstance of their association.

However, near the end, Lore throws in a twist that redefines the story once more. Lore discovers something about Thomas that drastically changes her view of him, and, by consequence, the world. Not to spoil anything (take this as a cue to skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film), but it’s like if Edward Norton, in the aforementioned American History X, discovered that the inmate he bonded with wasn’t black.

Once again, it seems like Lore’s perception of the world was based on a lie. Because her gradual acceptance of Jews is predicated on her budding romance and relationship with Thomas, the reveal makes her rationalization at the end seem superficial. She comes to the right conclusion, but for ultimately the wrong reason.

Slated to be Australia’s official entry for consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film, Lore certainly has a lot of Oscar appeal. Ms. Shortland is able to create a sense of three-dimensional dread in the picture, one that you can see, hear, and, if you’re in the proper theatre, feel. The photography is quite captivating, and the performances are indeed strong, but the film falls short of being a truly great Holocaust movie. Lore is like an extremely well written apology, but one that doesn’t quite get the message right.

Justin Li

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6-16

For more information and tickets, please visit the official website

  1. MAL says

    Justin, I appreciate your response given my rather pointed (and perhaps overly personal) comments. However, I still respectfully (and just as strongly) disagree with your perspective, as I believe it is far too “black & white” for a film I thought to be purposefully (and very effectively) ambiguous.

  2. Justin Li says

    Hi MAL,

    I was at the same premiere as you. The director herself said, in the Q&A, that the Thomas character was ambiguous (I agree) and she even insinuated that he was not Jewish, just an opportunist that tattooed himself and stole someone’s papers. If this is true, then Lore’s perception about Jews was based on false pretenses; ergo, coming to the right conclusion for the wrong reason/not quite getting the message right. That’s why I compared it to AHX, because Norton’s rejection of white power was due to the fact that he saw the black inmate as human. If the inmate turned out to be not black, then the situation would be identical to this movie.

    And even if he was Jewish, it doesn’t change the fact that Thomas followed Lore with dishonourable intentions (the director even made reference to people wanting to use babies for begging). He also tries on numerous occasions to proposition Lore for sex. Lore was supposed to see him as an infallible Good Samaritan (thus repudiating her anti-Semitism), but the reveal at the end only shows him as an opportunist that doesn’t represent the Jewish culture.

    And yes, it is a holocaust movie. Everything that happens in the film is about the holocaust. Her rejection of her parents was due to the holocaust. Her seeing the suffering of the Jewish people, thus humanizing them, was based on the holocaust. AHX had nothing to do with slavery because it was set years after the fact, while Lore is about a girl coming to grips with the discovery of the holocaust. How can you watch the film and not see it as the persistent theme?

  3. MAL says

    “…didn’t quite get the message right”? What exactly do you mean by that? What is the “right” message. No, never mind. I guess there just wasn’t a spoon available to feed our need for everything to be explained to you regarding their thoughts and emotions. I saw the TIFF premier last night and was particularly taken by the ambiguity and the respect the creative team had for an audience that might better infer what MIGHT be going on in the characters’ heads and hearts. And your comment about Edward Norton finding out the inmate wasn’t black makes no sense here because the parallel in question was also left ambiguous (and remember the tatoo?). Oh, and by the way, calling this a Holocaust movie is like calling American History X a slavery drama. There is a connection, but it is not even remotely ABOUT the Holocaust. Geez, man mature a bit, learn your history, and be a little more thoughtful in your reviews so your opinion doesn’t display ignorance.

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