Set in the immediate aftermath of Hitler’s suicide, Lore looks downright apocalyptic. Sure, the Black Forest’s lakes and trees are idyllic in a familiar way, yet the young Germans in this film are desperate, hardened. They debase themselves in order to survive, and their Nazi indoctrination complicates what they’re feeling. Aside from gnawing hunger, they are also capable of anger, self-doubt, and denial. This kind of material runs the risk of getting too dark, yet under the sure hand of director Cate Shortland, there is a complex redemptive story underneath the dirty muck.
Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is happy when her father (Hans-Jochen Wagner) returns home with his Nazi uniform askew. She and her younger siblings – Liesel (Nele Trebs), twins Günther (André Frid) and Jürgen (Mika Seidel), and little Peter – do not see the writing on the wall, but Lore’s mother (Ursina Lardi) knows better. The dream of National Socialism is over, and the adults blame each other for Germany’s failure. Lore slowly becomes cognizant of what’s happening: after her father shoots the family dog, she’s unsurprised when both parents abandon her and the others. With vague plans to meet a grandmother near Hamburg, Lore leads her brothers and sisters into the forest without any food or supplies. Lore only meets cruel people, aside from a young Jewish man named Thomas (Kai Malina), but that does not stop her deeply embedded anti-Semitism from controlling her thoughts.
After Lore begins her long, difficult journey, the film follows an episodic structure. The five children are alone in the woods with scraps food, until they encounter someone’s house or a carriage. The guiding thread through this hellish environment is psychological. Lore’s mind shifts constantly, whether she’s improvises brilliantly or spurns Thomas. She motivates her brothers and sisters with a shrewd liey: Günther gets caught stealing from a farm, and Lore uses this as an excuse to start traveling. She shifts the blame from her parents, who are certainly dead, and the lateral move preserves some degree of hope. Still, Lore cannot help but lose her cool. She’s just a girl, maybe 15, so she lashes and withdraws like a typical adolescent. Her relationship with Thomas is the most complicated. He provides food and acts as father figure to the twins, yet he’s not above making sexual advances to Lore. They need each other, and lack the will to abate their base natures. Shortland gives them no moment of mutual empathy, and by the time it’s all over, a bitter betrayal defines their time together.
In terms of style, Lore is raw and visceral. There are plenty of close-ups, and Shortland focuses her camera on bodies and water. Sometimes the imagery is redemptive – it’s cleansing for both Lore and the audience when she takes a much-needed shower – but it’s also disturbing. In as intense scene, Lore tries to end their misery while Thomas rushes to intervene. The camera is in the middle of their clumsy movement, plunging into a river, and the raw physicality of it forces us to understand what motives them. Shortland’s camera is always moving; even when she shoots from a fixed position, the camera bobs and weaves like it’s a weary participant. The gives the suggestion that we’re in their shitty situation, and moments of horror are all the more immediate. Women were raped before they were killed, the men resorted to suicide, and Shortland is unafraid to zoom in on their mangled, putrid flesh.
Performances from children are always tricky, but Shortland evokes a plausible family unit, complete with flaws and love. The younger children are more conservative, reactionary – they’re happy, more or less, as long as their hierarchy of needs is met. Since he’s always hungry and suffers from bed bugs, Peter shrieks throughout the film, but his cries never reach the point of overkill. There’s enough silence to counteract all the unpleasant noise, and that’s when Rosendahl develops her strange, difficult character. Lore never resorts her tears – she’s either forceful, or terrified – and the performance is memorably intense. She is like Viggo Mortensen’s character in The Road, except all the more flawed since she lacks the basic experiences that define adulthood. Her performance takes confidence and courage, particularly since her journey forces her to develop her incomplete sexuality at an accelerated rate. By the time she realizes she can trick men with her body, her eyes plainly express how something essential within her is lost.
I realize this review makes Lore sound like a depressing slog. A lot of the film is miserable, this is true, and there multiple instances where I couldn’t help but wince at the stark, uncompromising imagery. But since the drama is so thoughtful and the characters are so humane and flawed, it is easy to get wrapped up in what happens to them. The second act may be long and intense, yet deeply penetrating insight more than makes up for it. By the time it’s over, Lore cannot help but revert to stubborn, childlike behavior. No one sees her final act of rebellion, which is a shame since it weirdly suggests that she’s somehow better, more tolerant. The irony is that despite all this change, Lore is not especially happy about it. Her anger outweighs all her growth.