To this day, the German people, as well as the supposed civilized West, still must struggle with the “Good German” syndrome. The phrase came about in 1945 after the Allied forces carved the country of the Third Reich into four, each occupied by an Allied nation (the U.S., Great Britain, France and the U.S.S.R.). It is meant to remark, with irony and disdain, on how so many of the German people disavowed responsibility for the war crimes committed by the Nazi government, especially in the concentration camps. How can a society remain silent as atrocities are committed in their name?
This question of murky moral complicity is a provocative one that Cate Shortland muddies even further in the new release, Lore. The Aussie filmmaker’s German language film, based on a novel by Rachel Seiffert, challenges the viewer to understand its German protagonists and their own ethical angst. For who is more innocent of the sins of their father than a group of small children oblivious to their parents’ crimes? Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is an elder daughter who is barely a teenager, but she is forced to lead her mostly helpless siblings through a post-Hitler Germany that is only beginning to confront its own painful horrors.
In the movie’s first moments, Lore sits in a bathtub singing a playground rhyme to herself. Her pre-adolescent sister, Lisel (Nele Trebs) in bare feet skips along their family garden’s courtyard to the same words. One girl is in the prime of childhood and one is at the end, but both are ignorant of the blood soaked sand their idyllic life is built upon. For whatever their ages, childhood will end that day when their father (Hans-Jochen Wagner) comes home and implies the command’s desolation is imminent. It is unclear what role Vati, a Nazi officer, served in the Fuhrer’s machinations, but the ash of unknown origin that drifts like snow over the family’s nearby cabin insinuates the absolute worst and most heinous. His wife and Lore’s mother, Mutti (Ursina Lardi) is as repulsed by her husband as she is of her grim fate. Soon, the father has disappeared and Mutti is forced to abandon Lore to the welfare of her four young siblings: Liesel, twin boys Gunther (André Frid) and Jurgen (Mika Siedel) and newborn Peter (Nick Holaschke). As the mother goes dressed in her brightest blue outfit to surrender herself to the Americans, Lore runs out to look upon the woman who gave her life one last time. It is unclear in that moment if Lore wants to hug her or attack her for all that she has wrought. I doubt the girl knows herself.
Run out by neighbors who conveniently grew an appalled conscience after the Americans arrived, Lore must endure 900 km of hardship, suffering and death as she grows from girl to bitter old woman in the span of a few weeks. Their destination is the house of their grandmother in Hamburg, but really they seek an absolution that will not come. Like all of Germany, Lore must grapple with the undeniable reality of the death camps and anti-Semitism to the backdrop of paying for others’ sins.
This is a hauntingly brittle film that deals with the traditional traumas of youth in the most radical and unforgiving setting imaginable. The duties of the eldest sibling are a hardship of early responsibility, but no child should know what it is to hear their baby brother cry from bed bugs gnawing away at his flesh. Shot primarily in handheld close-up, Shortland’s film is a grim portrait of a girl coming of age and growing aware of reality at the horrid time when her nation faced its own. Lore and her siblings had no part in the horrors their father helped perpetrate, but are viewed with suspicion and disdain by all they encounter. Lore’s nice, store bought dress means they came from a family with money and power, something all Germans suddenly dislike. Her mother’s wedding ring is only good for a single meal from a woman who wants to keep baby Peter for the sympathy he will buy from the Americans, but who has no use for the rest of the speaking children who are suddenly guilty by birthright. This woman though still keeps a portrait of Hitler hanging in her kitchen.
The true core of the movie is Lore’s relationship with Thomas (Kai Malina), a young man who tried to kiss her in their first meeting and has followed their family across the German countryside. She has to deal with her budding feelings for him as a teenager, while assuming the role of mother and father for the others, who simply like Thomas because he can get them past American and British checkpoints…thanks to the Star of David on his papers. Why a Jewish Holocaust survivor would be so willing to help a displaced German family is a mystery for most of the film, but for Lore, it means reconciling the hatred she has been taught to have for his kind and the guilt she feels when she first sees pictures from the death camps. Early in the movie, she tells him that he is not allowed to touch her or her siblings while she not-so-secretly yearns for his touch under her faded dress. After Lore sees the good work her father has contributed to, she can no longer worship the Fuhrer like other Germans she meets on her travels, but avoiding deep denial does not mean an end to bigotry or hate. Her conflicted feelings for a man she desires coupled with her hatred for his race force her to face hard truths sooner than many of her countrymen.
Lore is an agonizing film that compels viewers to consider the perspective of Good Germans who may actually be innocent. Lore is not a clean character. She has internalized the deeply embedded flaws one would expect from the daughter of a Nazi, but she does not deserve to live with the shame that her mother refused to accept even as she walked to her end. The movie’s lyrical pace drags on the melancholic odyssey of four siblings and a Jewish boy for a little too long, especially with regard to Lore’s constantly shifting opinions of Thomas. However, this slow movement is in service to a story that shows how one girl not only loses her innocence, but also her soul to the evils wrought by others. It is a difficult film for those looking for easy answers about why Germany could let the Holocaust happen or how a nation can move on from that guilt. But Lore still deserves a viewing even from those who would wish to look away from such unpleasantries. After all, it is a character study about the descendents of Nazi Germany. It may leave an impact buried as deep as Lore’s own familial legacy.