Cate Shortland’s new film looks at the past from a highly personal perspective, writes Stephen Fitzpatrick
CATE Shortland has a deep and abiding interest in military history — and she’s got a pretty good idea why that’s no uncommon thing. ‘‘ It’s [because war is] so raw; it’s impossible to ever articulate exactly how painful [it is], the acts of bravery and the acts of cowardice, the terror of it; so you’re constantly trying to understand it,’’ she says. ‘‘ I think that’s why we keep telling the stories.’’
The Australian writer-director, who shot to feature film prominence with 2004’s Somersault — a brooding Snowy Mountains love story with a twist — has returned with the haunting Lore, a World War II drama told from the perspective of a group of Nazi children dodging Allied forces after the German surrender.
And with that in the bag — and already winning film festival accolades — Shortland is hard at work on an Australian television series focusing on the journalists who reported from the frontlines at Gallipoli.
‘‘ You can never really understand what it must have been like to be in a trench with bodies rotting around you, and being 17 and from Wagga Wagga,’’ she says. ‘‘ When one of the generals came from England [to Gallipoli], he said, ‘ This is like Alice in Wonderland: it gets stranger and stranger’ as he walked through it, and I think that’s just war.’’
Three decades after that British officer’s troublingly banal observation, Lore’s little band of children, led by the titular oldest daughter, Hannelore — a child on the verge of womanhood, forced to negotiate a world she cannot comprehend as she tries to keep her siblings safe — are making their own way on foot through a landscape that is both beguiling and deadly.
Brought up to believe fervently in the National Socialist ideology, their father a member of a mobile SS death squad now imprisoned as a criminal, they are forced to cope with the certainties of their lives having been snatched away. The five, ranging in age from Lore in her early teens to a suckling baby boy, have been instructed by their mother — also now imprisoned — to journey the hundreds of kilometres to Hamburg, where they will take shelter with their grandmother.
For Lore in particular, the dislocation of the journey is magnified by the fact, through coincidence, they are joined early on by a young Jewish man, Thomas. Thomas’s presence becomes — with one significant exception — the group’s only guarantee of safety, even as his body also becomes the point of mediation for Lore’s awakening sexuality. The irony of the fact that, as a Jew, he is someone she has been indoctrinated to regard as abhorrent provides much of the story’s momentum.
‘‘ Someone asked me what the film was, and I think [the answer is that] it’s an exploration of what it means to be human,’’ Shortland says. ‘‘ Because the kids have been made inhuman, and by the end of the film — I hate the idea that characters learn something — but I think at least she knows that she is the same as other human beings. She is no better, she is no worse. She’s just that.
‘‘ And that’s a profound thing when you’ve come from the fascist environment where everything is hierarchical, that the subhuman is how you define yourself; that the other is subhuman.’’
Shortland pauses for a moment, grasping for the German term, then locates it in the recesses of the memory of language classes she took in preparation for shooting Lore. ‘‘ Untermensch. That’s how they were defined,’’ she explains, recalling the Nazi epithet for those the regime believed inferior, and shakes her head in disbelief.
The story, drawn from British novelist Rachel Sieffert’s book The Dark Room, was made with a German cast and shot almost entirely in German. Shortland, who wrote the screenplay in English, then worked with a translator to produce the final script, says it could have been done no other way.
‘‘ I knew with the kids if there was any sense of it not being real or truthful, the audience was not going to emotionally engage,’’ she says. ‘‘ And I think that one of the beautiful things is when people watch the film they always say, ‘ God, the kids are so good’ — if they had to struggle with their English we wouldn’t have got that level of honesty from them.’’
Each of the leading actors stands out, but Saskia Rosendahl’s Lore is captivating. Shortland believes part of the reason for this is that the coldly emotionless Nazi child she portrays is a world away from Rosendahl’s real character. ‘‘ What is fascinating about Saskia is that she’s incredibly kind,’’ the director says. ‘‘ Her parents are from the [former] GDR, so she’s got a very community-oriented way about her. And she had to fight that, the whole film. She had to fight to be this really unempathetic, anti-Semitic, very unemotional young person. So what you’re actually seeing onscreen is that struggle. It’s not as if we’ve got a cold person who can just throw out those lines. She actually had to fight her own instincts.’’
The character of Thomas is just as convincingly played by Kai Malina, previously seen in the Palme d’Or winning The White Ribbon and a regular on German television drama.
Shortland says that although dramaturg Hanne Wolharn was critical to the film’s cohesion, she nonetheless insisted on regularly rehearsing alone with the two leads, relying on Rosendahl’s English to get them through.
‘‘ I really enjoy working with actors and I just couldn’t give it over; I had to have some part — a big part, I suppose — in the performance,’’ she says. ‘‘ And actually Saskia