Australia’s official foreign-language entry to the Academy Awards is an ethereal journey through a forgotten period of history.
If the history of the Second World War can be told in cinema, then it has been a fairly one-sided affair to date. For all of the focus on the horrors of one of the most devastating conflicts of the 20th century, it is surprising how few films have been made about the immediate after-effects in Germany following their surrender in 1945. History would tell us that the Allied victory neatly led to the Nuremberg Trials and the dawn of the Cold War, but the reality in Germany was far more grey. Based on a section of Rachel Seiffert’s novel The Dark Room, Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland‘s long-awaited follow-up to Somersault (2004) examines a grieving nation through the eyes of disbelieving children, unable to completely comprehend what kind of ‘good German’ they are meant to be in this emerging new world.
It’s 1945, and as the Allies begin to carve up Germany, the teenage Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is coming to grips with the tumultuous period. After her parents are arrested and taken to prisoner of war camps, Lore must look after her younger siblings as they journey across the country. In the middle of the war-torn nation, she encounters Jewish refugee Thomas (Nele Trebs), who collides with the pampered worldview she has maintained from a lifetime of indoctrination and parental indulgence.
What is immediately remarkable about Lore is just how little this fascinating period of history has been depicted in cinema. Shortland uses the same ethereal dreamlike style that catapulted Somersault to the top of the art house heap, and here it is appropriately used to view a world through the eyes of a teenage girl who is seeing a new world for the first time. Shot entirely in Europe, Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw maintains the same drifting distance that made the horrors of Snowtown a physical experience for its viewers. Here, his camera lingers long on moments or objects – from an article of clothing to a precious ceramic figurine carried over the 500 mile journey – but also gives the lengthy trek an immediacy, albeit one that doesn’t pay off right away.
Effectively a coming of age story, just as much for a nation as it is for its titular character, the revelation is the introduction of the young Saskia Rosendahl, just as Abbie Cornish was in her breakthrough role in Somersault. She carries the emotional weight of the film on her inexperienced shoulders, but it would be difficult to imagine a more capable performer in this difficult role. Forced to survive while her notions of right and wrong are rapidly broken down, there are parallels with this year’s blockbuster The Hunger Games, at least by way of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), a comparison aided by the terrific use of the forest landscapes. However, while that bigger budget picture may neatly eschew any moral ambiguity by not forcing its lead to directly participate in killing, Lore’s moral dilemmas are far weightier and she must grow up faster than any citizen of a fictional world.
The incredible restraint and arm’s length distance the visuals create may not give the satisfaction that those requiring immediate gratification require. Instead, Shortland spends the time allowing audiences to observe and reflect on a multitude of conflicting ideals, suddenly force to commingle across arbitrary borders. It also marks a terrific leap forward in what Australian filmmakers can achieve with increased collaboration, and not having to sacrifice what is unique about local voices in the process.
Lore was released in Australia on 20 September 2012 from Transmission Films.