There is a brutal irony at the heart of Cate Shortland’s powerful and absorbing German film “Lore.”
This is a Holocaust film that isn’t really like any other that I know.
What we are seeing is an extremely well-told tale about a fierce teenage girl who winds up to be the leader and protector of her four younger siblings during a perilous flight through war-savaged Germany.
But what we are seeing is the end of the war. The Führer has killed himself in his bunker. The Allies have divvied the country up and discovered the utterly unfathomable horrors of the death camps.
The savage irony here, then, is that this is not the more common tale of a Jewish family fleeing for its life, this is the story of a Nazi family – the children of a Nazi officer and his committed wife. It’s the story of a family led to survival by a teenage girl trained to hate Jews throughout her childhood.
At one of the most dire moments in their trek through the beautiful pastoral landscape that survives in a country in ruins, they come upon a farmhouse. The first thing our heroine Lore sees inside is the corpse of a young girl infested with flies. Her underpants have been ripped down to her ankles and her legs are caked in blood.
A few rooms away, the perpetually starving and ragtag family is joined by a glowering and hiding young man with clear-cut sexual designs on Lore. His connection to the dead girl is unclear but we assume he, too, came upon her by happenstance.
He is, though, carrying Jewish identity papers, which makes him many steps beneath anathema to Lore, despite her hormonal eagerness to get on with the sexual intimacies in the raw that she’s constantly seeing from others out of the corner of her eye.
His name is Thomas. Despite her insistence on his maintaining his distance, he becomes their protector – more than a few times in life and death situations.
She tells him not to even think of touching her brothers and sister. Before long, though, he is their savior whenever they meet up with authorities because he’s the only one carrying papers. Circumstances force this Nazi family to actually pretend to be Jewish.
But his presence is the indirect cause of a terrible tragedy that befalls this little family group.
This is a family that rejoices when given a single egg by a farmer’s wife, a family that believes that it’s the Americans who put children in prisons. Lore threatens her siblings with American incarceration when they get unusually fractious.
In the most brutal irony of all at the beginning of the film, Lore asks her mother, who’s on her way to join her condemned husband, if her parents will be put in prison.
“It’s a camp, not a prison,” says her mother hopefully. “Prison is for criminals.”
Neither young Lore nor her mother has any idea that people survive prisons in large numbers – but that “camps” will soon become throughout the West, a familiar word following the word “death.”
Their starvation odyssey through Germany at war’s end is meant to get them beyond Hamburg to the home of their mother’s mother Omi – an oasis of domestic order and cozy comfort in a deeply hostile world.
But what happens in the final scene of this quietly powerful movie is a moment where teenage Lore can no longer brook any pretense.
In a brilliant and subtle image, illusions are shattered.
Though it’s a German language film with German performers, the director here is an enormously talented 45-year-old Australian named Cate Shortland.
Her equally talented young star is Saskia Rosendahl, a German actress whose beautiful and haunted face registers a chaotic inner life that is being kept under rigid control.
The moment when that is no longer possible is what we await at film’s end. In its quiet way, it has immense authority when it comes.
Here is the unexpected power of the familiar Holocaust film when it has been turned upside down.
Rating: 3½ stars
Starring: Saskia Rosendahl, Kai-Peter Malina, Nele Trebs
Director: Cate Shortland
Running time: 108 minutes
Rating: Unrated, but R equivalent for nudity, sex and violence.
The Lowdown: A German teen must lead her younger siblings to safety through war-ravaged Germany after the Allied forces have taken over. In German with subtitles.