A sheltered teen living in Nazi Germany awakens to a harsh reality after her Führer falls, her parents are imprisoned, and she encounters a mysterious Jewish refugee who helps her survive a harrowing cross-country trek with her siblings in this haunting, vividly detailed war drama from director Cate Shortland. Emotionally complex and deliberately paced, Lore plays like the memory of a half-forgotten dream in which the unchallenged ideals of childhood are methodically dismantled. It's a powerful experience made all the more effective by talented young leads Saskia Rosendahl and Kai Malina, whose finely nuanced performances are perfectly complemented by Shortland's uniquely meditative visual style.
It's the spring of 1945. Adolf Hitler is dead and Allied forces are advancing through Germany, arresting and imprisoning Nazis as the fractured country's "final victory" slips permanently out of reach. Swept out of her opulent Bavarian home in a whirlwind by her father, an SS officer, and her embittered mother, 14-year-old Lore (Rosendahl) and her four younger siblings occupy a secluded farm; one day, their mother disappears down a long country road after telling Lore to find her way to her grandmother's house in Hamburg. Determined yet terrified, the shaken teen gathers up her siblings and sets out on a difficult journey across war-torn Germany. Later, just when it begins to seem as if all hope is lost, the weary young travelers cross paths with Thomas (Kai Malina), a young, enigmatic drifter who selflessly protects and feeds them. The fact that Thomas is Jewish challenges everything Lore has been taught to believe about the people whom the Führer despised, sparking an intense internal conflict in the confused adolescent, who will do anything to ensure the safety of her younger brothers and sisters.
Although the prospect of exploring that ethereal grey zone where the beliefs we held as children are challenged by the harsh experiences of adulthood might seem best left to the printed word, Shortland proves the perfect choice to adapt Rachel Seiffert's novel for the screen, due in large part to her boldly unconventional choices as a director. Shortland has a way of shooting objects that draw out their inner meaning for the viewer, and whether it's a porcelain fawn or a corpse found in a barn, those small details make a world of difference when it comes to revealing the titular protagonist's struggle to reconcile everything she has learned with the compassion she now feels. Children never want to think that their parents are wrong, or that they themselves have unwittingly inherited poisonous ideas from the very people who have raised them since birth. Perhaps Lore would have been too stubborn to accept this bitter truth under any other circumstances, but here she has no choice, and it's difficult not to sympathize with her even when we're repulsed by her words and actions. Despite the deplorable beliefs she has been taught, Lore is still an innocent, and if there's hope for her, then it stands to reason that there is hope for all of Germany's children.
The dream of every director tasked with bringing such a difficult story to life is to have a star who can carry the drama, and in her feature debut, Rosendahl is a revelation. Pretty and youthful, yet possessing a gaze that gradually reveals the unfathomable depths of her character's betrayal, she captures us with charm and optimism early on, and stuns us with her acute perception as Lore begins to see the world's true colors. Likewise, Rosendahl's more experienced co-star Malina makes the most of his sparse dialogue, giving his character a deep complexity that intermingles perfectly with Lore's personality. Under the assured guidance of Shortland, both turn in unforgettable, award-worthy performances. The same could be said of the supporting cast as well. Even the infant brother Lore is charged with protecting lets out an eerie scream, as if on cue, when his mother coolly states that the Allied forces "kill all the children" while thrusting the child into his frightened sister's arms. Even if that particular moment was due to happenstance, Shortland evokes strong performances from the youngest members of the cast as their perceptive elder sister begins to experience a moral awakening of sorts.
Working closely with talented Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (The Snowtown Murders, Animal Kingdom) and composer Max Richter, Shortland has created a film that's strikingly simple in concept, yet richly complex in style and content. Given the sweeping scale of many World War II dramas, it would be easy for an intimate picture like this to get lost in the shuffle. Considering the director's unique talent for exploring ideas and concepts related to the Holocaust, rather than simply interpreting historical facts, here's hoping that this remarkable film finds the appreciative audience it deserves.