Two days after watching Aguirre—a German film made on the outside, I felt vindicated in watching Lore—a German film made by an outsider, Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland. It’s refreshing to have an outside commentary; an exclusively local perspective risks too much bias. Lore takes as its subject the Holocaust, with which modern-day Germany is still wrangling, and the Allies’ subsequent denazification of the nation, which is rarely studied. There are some perceptions of the Holocaust as an isolated, uncanny outburst of psychopathy, and others of it as a careful exploitation of military industry to facilitate genocide, with much historical precedent. The latter has more truth to it than the former. Lore takes an even more daring—and, in my mind, more accurate—point-of-view: that most Germans of the era were enamored with and confident in Nazism to the extent that they adored Hitler and were willing to trust his prejudice against the Jews, the Roma and the rest, and to ignore if not support whatever he was up to with them. Crucial to this portrayal of modern history’s greatest catastrophe is the focus on children who grew up knowing and cherishing only Nazism, and who faced a most agonizing coming-of-age in the years following World War Two.
The English word “lore” refers to fictive legend, oral education, myth of perhaps national proportion, hereditary distortion. The pun is valid, but the title Lore is really a German female name (pronounced like “Laura”) belonging to the protagonist, played with neither fear nor flaw by Saskia Rosendahl. The film introduces her taking a bath in her spacious Black Forest home, counting along as her little sister Liesel (Nele Trebs) plays hopscotch outside. There is a playful naïveté to Lore’s youth, but also a classically paradoxical sexual component. The film makes no secret of Lore’s beauty; the sight of her rising from the bathtub and moving to the window has a troubling allure, erotic but not vulgar. You can tell that this is a feminine perspective in how it uses the female body and sex to gain attention, not to titillate but rather to perturb and provoke thought—for Lore is foremost a beauty in the Aryan sense. There’s a term out there called “body fascism,” which I find redundant. Nazism at its core was always about the perfection of the Nordic anatomy—its physique and its genes—and the ugliness of all other figures, and it was as much about the propagation of the Aryan race as it was about wiping out Judaism. You don’t believe me? Do some research on Lebensborn and Leni Riefenstahl.
Shortland has thus made a very moral, very ingenious choice in making Lore’s coming-of-age tale a mainly sexual one, and in challenging her adolescent romanticizing of Nazism with a mature erotic conflict. Abandoned by their parents, she, Liesel and their little twin brothers Günther and Jürgen (André Frid and Mika Seidel) flee Allied persecution and head north on foot to Jutland, to their grandmother’s house. They obtain a guide through the wilderness in Thomas (Kai Malina, subtle and unsentimental), a Jew and a concentration camp escapee who knows a thing or two about survival. The sexual attraction between Lore and Thomas—buttressed by them being young and alone in the middle of rural Bavaria—is underscored by their sociopolitical and racial convictions. Lore’s taunting of Thomas’ Judaism comes off less as genuine Nazism than as a girl in a schoolyard feigning open disgust at a boy she’s crushing on, so as not to embarrass herself in front of her chums, or maybe so as to deploy a half-sane reverse psychology. Meanwhile, the kids take a liking to Thomas and decide not to take his merciful assistance of them for granted. They are still quite young, open to influence and to new horizons, not as hardened to right-wing philosophy and urban creature comforts as Lore is. The film reminded me of another Australian film, Walkabout, in which a teen girl and her little brother are stranded in the Outback and depend on an Aborigine youth to survive. There is a sexual interest between the Aborigine and the girl that goes unfulfilled because of cultural disassociation, and the boy has less difficulty adapting to the desert than his sister. But that film is overrated, ruined by a style-over-substance approach and lazy characterizations. Lore is a massive improvement.
I’m slowly putting together a long-form literary project—a satire that plays on the sexual connotation of Nazism—and Lore was an invaluable source of research, but besides that, it’s great art. We pity the title character for her constricted worldview, but we understand that she must go through hell if she is to be saved from it. Several passages stand out in her journey: her pawning of gewgaws for food; her and Thomas’ intense, multi-dimensional encounter with a predatory oarsman; her obsession with a figurine of a deer, a classic symbol of innocence lost (recall Bambi, made in 1942); her tragic run-in with Soviet soldiers; her unspoken reaction to a stunning revelation about Thomas. Denazification is seen taking shape at intermittent moments. The Allies post photos of Jewish mass graves across the countryside for all to see, and German bit roles debate whether they are authentic. At that, bear in mind: if the Nazis did hate the Jews so much, wouldn’t genocide be a logical conclusion? Did they not? Was it not? Bravely, Lore makes no blunt effort to condemn Nazism. That is the right approach. There are no clichés, no platitudes, no judgments, no maudlin manipulations. The film trusts its images to speak for themselves, and the audience to have the moral aptitude to recognize that Lore’s half-assed Nazism holds no water against her childish, even primal, emotional and physical reliance on Thomas. Shortland has only one other film to her credit: Somersault. I am now quite eager to see it. Of all the films I will have watched this month, Lore will likely go down as my favorite.
To Do: No longer any use bothering to predict what I’m going to do tomorrow, since at the rate I’m going, if I say I’ll do it tomorrow, I probably won’t. All things considered, Lore was a strong enough film to earn its own entry. I owe my readers reviews of Memories of Underdevelopment, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums and Nostalghia. On that note, I’m off to watch Eternity and a Day.