in this instance, it’s the immediate aftermath of World War II as five German children embark on a hellish journey to safety in a house 500 miles away.
The second is that director and co-writer Cate Shortland (“Somersault”) refuses to give any clues how you should feel or react to the children’s confrontations with moral ambiguity. Indeed, at some points, you’re not even sure what’s happening.
To make a gross generalization, war movies can pretty much divide into two camps: Those that make you feel the excitement and adrenaline rush of war, the adventure if you will, and those that make you recoil.
With the latter, and this is certainly the case with “Lore,” a sense of unease pervades an arduous odyssey.
The film is a German/Australian/British co-production and filmmaker is Australian with the film itself shot in Germany in the German language. It is based on a novel, “The Dark Room” by Rachel Seifert, that takes the point of view of a German teen trying to make sense of the catastrophe of the Third Reich.
In the spring of 1945, five privileged children of a SS officer and his true-believer Nazi wife get stranded as the Allies sweep across the country and the parents are imprisoned. The only directive the eldest, Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), has from the mother is to take her siblings to their grandmother’s in Hamburg.
Among the children are two small twins and an infant so Lore is challenged to keep everyone fed and safe while avoiding troops as much as she can. She firmly believes American soldiers “kill all children.”
Along the way she sees newspaper photos taken in a concentration camp of the stacks of bodies and emaciated survivors. She also encounters other signs of the nation’s infatuation with Nazi ideology especially among older Germans. These for the first time raise doubts in her mind about their leaders.
She then encounters a strange, slightly older German boy, Thomas (Kai Malina), who seems to want to the children in their plight. But she doesn’t trust him despite her sexual curiosity. Later, when she learns he may be Jewish, her reaction is even more negative.
Again, nothing here points to any moral or political stance. The film presents a series of events, some even reprehensible or baffling — what on earth is that black gunk Lore gets on her hands?
At one point, she and Thomas seriously hurt or perhaps even kill a peasant to gain access to the other side of a river to continue their journey through the Black Forest. You decide: the residue of Nazi ideology or survival instincts?
The young actors, as children often can be, are extremely good at conveying the bewilderment and fear they experience. And the film refuses to play nice with the young folks — there’s no reason to anticipate everyone will survive.
At times I did wonder why why why. Why do the parents in the brief early sections have so much animosity not only for each other but seemingly for their children?
I can guess but a few clues might help. Why does Lore harden her heart seemingly before she has reason to? I can guess but …
Overall though, Shortland and co-writer Robin Mukherjee succeed with this uncompromising approach. You can’t always explain people’s actions in war or its aftermath. You can’t always understand what is going on when horror and madness are in season.
(As bad as these experiences are they seldom rise to the level of what transpires in Jerzy Kosinski’s astonishing and dark novel, “The Painted Bird.”)
Cinematograph and production design (by Adam Arkapaw and Silke Fischer respectively) situate these events in a rural landscape that is at once beautiful and utterly bleak. This is a modestly budgeted film so a scorched landscape was not possible. This works to the film’s advantage though.
The terrain is not one where war has been waged but rather one of abandonment and desolation. A building is in shambles and a body discovered within, wounds dried, as flies and maggots are in the process of taking over.
“Lore” is a remarkable film that explores characters, often unlikable, in situations of unbearable stress. There is also this: Few storytellers — one recent exception is Güther Grass — are willing even now to see Germans as victims of Hitler.
It’s dangerous territory, which is one reason why Western and especially American movies concentrate on either the Holocaust or the victorious Allied forces.
As an Australian, Shortland has a freer hand. And it helps that the portrait is of children, who can maintain a certain innocence of Germany’s troubled past.
Even so it’s not a sympathetic portrait. It’s merely an empathetic one.
Opens: February 8, 2013 (Music Box Films)
Cast: Saskia Rosendahl, Kai Malina, Ursina Lardi, Nele Trebs, Hans-Jochen Wagner, Mika Seidel, André Frid
Production companies: Edge City Films, Porchlight Films, Rohfilm
Director: Cate Shortland
Screenwriters: Robin Mukherjee, Cate Shortland
Based on a novel by: Rachel Seiffert
Producers: Karsten Stöter, Liz Watts, Paul Welsh, Benny Dreschel
Director of photography: Adam Arkapaw
Production designer: Silke Fischer
Music: Max Richter
Costume designer: Stefanie Bieker
Editor: Veronika Jenet
No rating, 109 minutes