We track history with milestone dates. 1066, 1215, July 4, 1776, December 7, 1941 etc. While the importance of flashpoint events shouldn't be diminished, it is easy to forget that wide-sweeping societal change happens over time. The German population didn't suddenly wake up and all become Nazis after the Reichstag Fire, nor did they suddenly transform industrial Communists (in the East) or democracy-loving peacemongers (in the West) once Hitler blew his brains out.
It is through these terrifying ellipses of history where Cate Shortland's outstanding new film "Lore" marches, and it has all the scars muddy shoes to prove it. On its surface, it is a survival picture. An early-adolescent girl must protect her four younger siblings as they traverse Germany's black forest and its newly installed military zones to reach, I kid you not, "Grandmother's house." This post-war fable has its share of big bad wolves, and the hardship/adventure aspects of the film are more than sufficient to keep you engaged. Underneath, however, is a striking look at Germany's first reckoning with the crimes of the Third Reich. If Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" was the storybook look at Nazisms first kindling, "Lore" makes a worthy bookend as its final flame-out.
We open in a wealthy home. A military officer father back from the front is so busy burning incriminating files and shooting the family dog that he barely realizes his eldest daughter has reached womanhood. Lore (short for Hannalore, and played exquisitely by newcomer Saskia Rosendahl) still runs through meadows with her arms akimbo and wears little girl dresses, but her (deep, penetrating, almond-shaped) eyes are just open enough that she's starting to realize she's an inheritor of an evil legacy.
"Never forget who you are," her Mutti remarks after snapping on her sharp cerulean hat and marching off to turn herself in to "the Americans." By now the war has ended and the family is hiding in the country. Dad is gone, as is the Fuhrer, and Lore is, for the first time, on the receiving end of a little straight talk. With this honesty comes overwhelming responsibility. She's handed the last remaining money and jewelry and told to keep the family - which includes a newborn - alive by any means necessary.
What follows is a long slog through mud, as the next German generation literally loses their baggage on the road to sanctuary. Facts about the family are learned in clever ways, and fundamental truths are shattered. The final scenes, too perfect to spoil with specificity, reject so-called civilization with an act so resonant in its simplicity it caused this reviewer to shout "yes" back at the screen in full voice.
No one asked for another World War II movie and Australian director Cate Shortland seems to understand this. Working with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (whose work in "The Snowtown Murders" was sublime) "Lore" is gorgeous and "artful" without being showy. Deep color saturation (such greens!) bleed all over the screen with a dreamy, impressionistic haze. Naturalist images work in counterpoint to the grand political drama, and unexpected details jump to the foreground, much as they do in the eyes of young people. Lore's younger siblings begin as cute Aryan moppets, only to turn more ragged as the film proceeds.
"Lore" is a rare, wonderful film that works not just as surface entertainment, but has deeper historical meaning, as well as an even grander, more universal statement. For those still trying to make sense of the aftermath of World War II, observing the nascent camps of "how to deal with this" is truly fascinating (and, with regard to the deniers, frightening.) As a coming of age tale in a crucible, I can think of few better.