Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) and Thomas (Kai Malina) in "Lore." (Music Box Films )
For both audiences who admire it and the protagonist who lives it, the intense, emotional "Lore" is a picture from life's other side.
While stories dealing with the suffering surrounding World War II and the Holocaust are a dramatic staple, "Lore" flips things around and involves us in a different side of war, in the confusion and pain of the young children of the Nazi hierarchy left alone and abandoned by the exigencies of fate and the fecklessness of their parents.
For Lore, short for Hannelore, at 14 the oldest of five siblings, the reversal is even more extreme: Everything she has been told about the world and the way it works, from the inevitable victory of the Thousand Year Reich on down, turns out to have been untrue.
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At an age in which curiosity about romance and sexuality is already making her life seem different and new, Lore (mesmerizingly played by Saskia Rosendahl) has to deal as well with questions of survival and trust. At its heart "Lore" qualifies as a coming-of-age story, but it is far from the ones we usually see.
This is because of both the heart-in-her-throat performance of Rosendahl and the skill of co-writer (with Robin Mukherjee) and director Cate Shortland.
Australian filmmaker Shortland's first feature, "Somersault," helped push Abby Cornish to international stardom, and this new one reaffirms her status as a director whose strength is emotional, empathetic filmmaking. Working from "The Dark Room," a prize-winning novel by Rachel Seiffert, and aided by an enveloping Max Richter score, Shortland once again demonstrates an ability to pull us inside potent situations no matter how grim and unrelenting they may be.
In pursuing this goal, Shortland has smartly chosen rising young cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, an award-winner for "Animal Kingdom," as her director of photography. Arkapaw's intimate, very fluid work, which can shift focus from nature scenes to close-ups of ordinary objects and back again, helps in the creation of mood and atmosphere while allowing us to feel that we are spying on very private lives.
"Lore" starts with what will in effect be the last moments of normal childhood either Lore or her siblings will have. She's taking a bath, her younger sister Liesel (Nele Trebs) is playing hopscotch, and nothing threatens to disturb the tranquillity of the day.
Then a military truck pulls up and Vati, the father (Hans-Jochen Wagner), a top SS officer, arrives all in a rush, telling Mutti, the glacial blond mother (Ursina Lardi), that their house must be abandoned at once.
In the frenzy of hurried packing and instructions to take the silver, Vati and Mutti find time to burn large numbers of incriminating files. For these are not just ordinary good Germans but staunch believers in Nazi ideology who have taken pains to indoctrinate their children, especially Lore, in their belief systems.
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In these closing days of the war, however, belief protects no one, and soon enough both Vati and Mutti disappear from their children's lives. With Lore in charge, the five siblings have to navigate a landscape as chaotic and lawless as anything Mad Max had to experience.
Though Mutti has left them with some money and jewelry to barter, these children are on their own in a world where the weak are disparaged, social norms non-existent and self-interest so prevalent that people will do literally anything to survive.
Shortland has taken pains not to hold back on the horrors these children face as they try to make it to their grandmother's house outside Hamburg with only the slightest idea of how to get there. Suicides with gaping head wounds, murdered and likely raped women, corpses with ants crawling on them, these nightmares of the road and more are constantly on view.
One theme returned to again and again is how reluctant the Germans are to abandon the ideology that got them where they are. "We broke his heart," a farm wife says, looking at a picture of the now-deceased Führer. "He loved us so much."
Amid all this, Lore comes across Thomas (Kai Malina), a young man a few years older than her, a survival specialist and veteran of concentration camps. There is some kind of mutual attraction here, but both parties feel reluctant about it, Lore because Thomas' Jewish identity papers label him a parasite in her eyes, and Thomas because most kinds of emotional connections have been burned out of him.
Even with this kind of setup, "Lore" has been made with too much care and attention to go to expected places. The Jewish family snapshots glimpsed in Thomas' wallet belonged to Shortland's German Jewish in-laws, who fled the country in 1938. That sense of personal connection means everything in a film in which lives are interrupted and twisted out of shape, never to regain their original form.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles; Town Center 5, Encino; Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Westpark 8, Irvine
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