Cate Short­land’s new film looks at the past from a highly per­sonal per­spec­tive, writes Stephen Fitz­patrick

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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