The new German-language drama Lore, which is set at the end of the Second World War, is Hunger Games meets Downfall meets The Road. That's a simplistic formulation, but if you think such a combination sounds good, then this film is for you. And me.
In the Black Forest of Germany, a large family is hurriedly packing. The war is ending, and the Allied troops are rounding up the war criminals. And "Mutti" and "Vati," the parents of five children that include 14-year-old Lore, are war criminals. There's scarcely time to burn documents, shoot the family dog and relocate to a farm before Lore, the oldest, and her siblings find themselves alone in the world, with only a few valuables to barter on their way to their grandmother's house hundreds of miles north.
Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) and the kids, which include a baby brother, are forced into a frightening landscape of anarchy and desolation. Lacking papers and trained to be terrified of the Allied troops, their progress is slow until they meet Thomas (Kai Malina), an oddly hostile young man who eventually indicates to them that he's a Jew, without volunteering details.
While the scenario of a blond-haired Nazi mädchen and a young Jewish man stealing through the forest by night might lead us to expect sentimental revelations, the film is excellent because it avoids such predictable comforts. The title character may be a plucky, attractive teenager, but she is a frightening piece of work, too, well drilled in the Hitler Youth slogans she learned at camp and at home. For her, pain is something to be embraced in the pursuit of ultimate victory. But Lore's reverence for her parents, and the Führer, is tempered by her dawning awareness of the crimes they perpetrated—Vati's patriotic service was with the Einsatzgruppen in Belarus, where he bravely massacred unarmed Jews.
Lore's tortured feelings for Thomas are wrenchingly dramatized: Her visceral hatred of Jews clashes with her loneliness and fear, and her raw, adolescent sexual feelings. By the end of the journey, her consciousness has been inalterably shaken. On the other hand, Thomas' background is kept intentionally vague, to excellent narrative effect.
Surely it was a limitation imposed by the film's budget, but the often-bewitching German landscape we see in the film doesn't appear to have hosted a war for at least 65 years. Such points of realism don't actually matter, under the direction of Cate Shortland, an Australian filmmaker. Shot in Super 16mm, with lots of saturated color, this is not a normal war film—there is little in the way of conventional action scenes. Instead, it's a film of sensory impressions, lingering moments and hazy flashbacks. Much is made of various disfiguring substances that cling to the skin of the characters—a heavy-handed symbol, but a visually powerful one.
Perhaps the narrative tone to the female creators of the tale, which is based on a semi-biographical novel by the German-Australian-English author Rachel Seiffert. The film's tone and subject, of an adolescent's widening awareness of the world, reminds me of nothing so much as Ratcatcher, Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay's celebrated 1999 debut about Glaswegian adolescents in the 1970s. The DNA of another Commonwealth woman filmmaker, New Zealander Jane Campion, is also in this film (it was edited by Campion collaborator Veronika Jenet). These artists all work in the vein of a sensory cinema, one that owes a great deal to an interior style of narrative that we most often associate with novels. Shortland's fantastically assured film is unusual—and unusually powerful—precisely because the psychologically complex Lore is such a difficult character to like.