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Of a thousand different stories from World War II, Lore is unusual, perhaps unique, as it explores Germany’s policies and its defeat from the perspective of the children of a Nazi officer. It’s complex, brittle, challenging – and making it in German made it even more so. But for director Cate Shortland, it has profound echoes for Australia, as she explains to Andrew L. Urban.

Dressed in a soft, flowing green outfit, Cate Shortland looks less like a cutting edge filmmaker than some sort of spiritual guru, perhaps, but as soon as she starts to talk about her film, Lore, her focus is notably intense.

Lore, based on the novel by Rachel Seiffert, is set in Europe at the end of World War II. Stranded with her younger siblings after their Nazi parents (Ursina Lardi, Hans-Jochen Wagner) are imprisoned, Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) leads her younger siblings across war-damaged Germany.

For their safety, the children must reach their grandmother's house in the North but amidst the chaos of a defeated nation, Lore encounters the mysterious and intriguing Thomas (Kai Malina), a young Jewish refugee. Unwanted, unwelcome, Thomas follows them and Lore finds her fragile reality shattered by feelings of both hatred and desire. 

To survive, she must learn to trust a person she has been taught to hate. And as the consequences of her parent’s actions and beliefs become apparent, Lore must also start to face the darkness within herself.

"the ongoing and unfulfilled debate about what is an Australian film"

Given the ongoing and unfulfilled debate about what is an Australian film – both for funding and for storytelling purposes - I ask her how this Australian/German co-production project was seen in the funding process. Before she knuckled down to that question, she takes a swipe at Australian tv drama and commercials for being so unrepresentative of today’s society, with only white, middle class families represented. That’s an understandable observation from a woman who has married a German Jew, lived in post-apartheid South Africa and adopted two black children.

“Films in Australia are no longer being made by just white males,” she says. “They are being made by indigenous filmmakers, migrants, women…” But the point that the funding agencies took on board is perhaps best expressed by Shortland’s producer, Liz Watts, who sees Lore not so much about Germany and Nazis, but about children of any and all perpetrators. This is where she was motivated by the story, because she sees parallels with the white man’s colonisation of Australia. By that reckoning, she is the child of perpetrators ….

“The funding bodies have been very supportive,” she explains. 

Still, the biggest obstacle Shortland faced was “the perspective of the story; the novel walked a fine tightrope, and avoided portraying Germans as victims. That was a huge challenge, to keep the humanity of the characters,” while retaining the essence of the moral distinction.

"I was drawn to understand her fight with her own humanity and sense of belonging."

In her background notes to the film, Shortland remarks: “I was drawn to understand her fight with her own humanity and sense of belonging. The outside world is oblivious to Lore and her siblings’ plight and Lore becomes more and more detached from society. But within her detachment is a growing certainty - she is lost and adrift but she knows something of the awful truth. She has been taught never to question but to obey. By the end of the story she is full of questions that she knows will never be answered.”

Sieffert’s book is actually three novellas, and when producer Paul Welsh gave her the book during Shortland’s Scottish visit promoting her 2004 film, Somersault, she was drawn to the last of them. “In that story a young German tries to find out about his grandfather and his activities during the war. It’s a very clear of story of good v bad and it tells you how to feel. Lore is much harder, more complex, but Paul insisted that’s why we should do that one.”

It’s certainly a universal question, told through the intimate story of a 14 year old girl. How do you feel and think and behave if your parents have done something terrible to someone, or lots of someones? As you grow up in a family where certain attitudes are constantly reinforced as being the right attitudes, how do you cope when you come face to face with the consequences and the contradictions of that stand?

These and similar questions are explored in Lore, and there are no easy answers. There are no hard ones, either. And just as Sieffert’s book simply observes and then moves to the next moment, so too Shortland’s film observes and moves to the next frame, sometimes – it seems – haphazardly. Audiences do not find escape in cinematic catharsis with this film. 

"ripped our hearts out"

Central to the film’s creative success is the central performance of young Saskia Rosendahl as Lore. “When I first saw her at auditions,” Shortland recalls, “I thought ‘no’ she’s too beautiful… look at her face.” But when Saskia, “a dancer with very little acting experience, ripped our hearts out with her audition piece, being dragged weeping across the floor during a scene we asked her to do …” Shortland drops her head with a sigh of emotion, “that was it.”

With the unusual luxury of three weeks of rehearsals, Shortland relied heavily on dramaturg Hanne Wolharn, a German actress of considerable talent; “I’d work with her on any film anytime,” says a grateful Shortland. “She can smell bullshit [in a performance] a mile away.”

Wolharn helped Shortland as they “built the kids up, first to make them feel like a family, practicing Nazi songs and dances – lots of physical to work up trust. Then we introduced the themes, in layers, details like eye contact, how they address adults, which was quite different then, and showed documentaries of the period.”

"a child of perpetrators"

During the writing and making of the film, Shortland’s motivation – her association with the central theme of being a child of perpetrators – manifested itself as anger. “Even if I hadn’t converted to Judaism [to align with her husband] I’d have been angry. It’s infuriating as a story – and that was emotionally draining.”

Published September 20, 2012

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Cate Shortland


Australian release: September 20, 2012

Saskia Rosendahl - as Lore

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