Every time I start another movie set in Nazi Germany, I wonder if the filmmaker can tell me something I haven’t seen in countless films, read in books, learned in history class or surfed past on TV. Once in a rare while, I’m happily surprised. “Lore” was one of those surprises.
Technically, only the beginning takes place during the Nazi reign, for news of Hitler’s death quickly reaches the family at the heart of the film. The father, a Nazi certain to go to jail when conquering Russians or Americans find him, bundles his wife and kids off to a farm.
Soon, though, the mother also receives a summons to prison. She orders Hannelore (Saskia Rosendahl), her eldest, to lead the other four kids on a cross-country hike to their grandmother. They leave with almost no money and no guardian, walking and catching rides when they can.
At first, the film (which adapts one of three stories in Rachel Seiffert’s novel “The Dark Room”) seems to be mainly about the harsh life of occupied Germany in 1945. Lore barters her mother’s jewels for meager meals, begs for assistance (and gets it only because she’s toting an infant), keeps an eye out for sexual predators and tries to control brothers whose recklessness endangers all of them.
This becomes a Grimm fairy tale indeed, and director Cate Shortland intends it that way: The photography sometimes becomes distorted or surreal, as if hunger were breaking down Lore’s senses. The fairy tale structure is reinforced by the action: She’s literally going through the woods (the Black Forest) to grandmother’s house. At one point, she sings a snatch of the opera “Hansel and Gretel.”
Yet Shortland, who wrote the script with Robin Mukherjee, doesn’t stop there. Lore begins as an anti-Semite who has inherited her parents’ prejudice. When a Jew named Thomas (Kai Malina) joins the group – he also knows that the presence of a baby means more food from strangers – she resents his daring and ingenuity, even when it helps the quintet.
Gradually, Lore unconsciously takes a broader view. She meets villagers who weep at the thought that they let their beloved Führer down, who insist Germans have nothing to be ashamed of, who quickly become the first Holocaust deniers. She sees the terrible pictures from the camps, and these Germans’ ignorant sanctimoniousness begins to sting. She doesn’t make speeches, but you can tell she no longer thinks like her blinded countrymen.
Rosendahl makes a vital film debut in a demanding role, where her eyes do most of the talking; Malina expresses himself mainly through wary glances, too. There’s not much for them to talk about: Suffering and mutual distrust don’t inspire casual chat.
Shortland has made just three features: the 2004 “Somersault” (starring Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington) and the 2006 TV movie “The Silence.” She’s Australian – “Lore” was nominated for eight AACTA Awards, the Australian Oscars – and on the basis of this film alone, she reminds me of ambitious directors who jump-started the Australian New Wave nearly four decades ago.