At a posh German estate, a gaggle of beautiful blond-haired blue-eyed children have been ignorant of the horrors of war but are now suddenly brooding when news of their Führer’s death hits home and their once stalwart and dependable parents suddenly lose it. Nazi officer dad and crumbling mom dash off on different paths headed for prison or death at the hands of the invading Allied forces. As is so classic in German folklore (notice the double meaning behind the film’s title – both our young protagonist’s short-hand name and representing a bit of modern volk-lore) the abandoned children led by Lore (a devastatingly natural Saskia Rosendahl – running hot and cold, confident and scared, petulant and innocent at the flip of a switch) disappear into the Black Forest headed for Grandmother’s house.
Adapted from a novel by Rachel Seiffert, Australian director Cate Shortland delivers in a realist way what The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (for all its power) fumbled heavy-handedly with in its attempt to declare Germany’s actions in WWII as a form of nationalist murder-suicide. Much like the children in Haneke’s The White Ribbon who grew up to become the people who joined the Nazi party, the children in Lore represent Germany as a whole…complacent, seduced and all too willing to follow a madman promising decorum and riches. When that madman dies, the cause is revealed as a vicious hoax, and the children are left to literally wander in the woods scrounging to survive.
Like the flip side of Nemirovosky’s depiction of upper middle-class Parisian refugees fleeing the German occupation in Suite Francaise, Shortland shows with shocking alacrity the confusion and hopelessness of German children without their parents, of a fatherland without its father that was a result of the Allied occupation. The German parents were evil, but the children…what were they? And like the French Catholic mother in Nemirovsky’s tale, Lore (stepping into the role of mother to her younger siblings) sheds every bit of decorum as the true nature of their predicament becomes painfully clear. Meanwhile, Shortland paints it all with conflicting scenes of horror and beauty, like a feminist take on Elem Klimov’s Come and See, with Malickian camerawork of the natural environs tempered by the haunting music of Max Richter.
Lore and the children find a protector in a mysterious refugee carrying Jewish papers. All throughout Lore had been going through the motions, on auto-pilot in her attempts at care for the other children, never knowing when to show true emotion, grasping at the last shreds of dignity (witness her request of the mother she pays to breastfeed her baby brother). With this teenage boy, she finally shows some emotion, but it’s a preconceived hatred for his supposed heritage. She screams at him like she is programmed to do, but inside is a cauldron of pent-up teenage girl emotions with no outlet – and she knows that he is their only hope to get safely to Grandmother’s house.
POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD
Horrible things happen on the way. Not everyone makes it. The survivors are left battered and stunned. But they make it to their destination. And Grandmother, shocked at what has become of her family…or her country…of her pride…falls into her old ways. At their first formal, normal meal, she scolds the children for their lack of manners. But Lore rebels, making it clear that in a world gone mad she would rather run wild in the woods than succumb to the decorum and complacency that lead to all this death. In a great symbolic act in the closing scene, she takes a prized childhood possession, a little porcelain fawn that is one of the only surviving relics from her mother, and she smashes it under foot.
The death of a way of life, no matter how horrid and fabricated that life may have been, is not for the faint of heart.
Meanwhile the stories that still arise from this era in our world history continue to have more sides than a mathematician could theoretically count. The psychology of it all will never be fully understood.
Lore, thanks to the strength of its lead and the daring poeticism of its director, is a near masterpiece.
Currently available through Netflix.
Written by David H. Schleicher