Australian writer-director Cate Shortland’s second feature offers a World War II story, based on a portion of Rachel Seiffert’s, that has a perspective different from the usual ones. Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is a German teenager living with her family—parents Peter (Hans-Jochen Wagner) and Asti (Ursina Lardi), younger sister Liesel (Nele Trebs) twin brothers Jurgen (Mika Seidel) and Gunther (Andre Frid) and baby Peter—in the waning days of the conflict. As Allied forces move into Germany from both east and west and the Third Reich crumbles, Peter, an SS officer, is busily burning his files before going off to fight (and, presumably, die), and Asti is packing up whatever her suitcases will accommodate.
After Peter departs, Asti decides to leave as well, on her own—instructing Lore to care for the younger children and, if need be, take them to Hamburg, where their grandmother lives, via train. But when it becomes necessary for her to do so, she finds that the trains have been taken over by the occupiers, and so begins a long trek by land with Liesel, Jurgen, Gunther and Peter in tow.
Virtually all of the film’s remainder is an account of their journey, during which they occasionally stop to ask for food or shelter—one interlude is with an older woman half-mad with depression, bemoaning the fact that the people weren’t loyal enough to the now-dead Hitler—but Lore’s fascist indoctrination becomes clear as well when the little troupe join forces with Thomas (Kai Malina), a young man traveling alone. Thomas bears identification papers that bear the star of David although he looks suspiciously fit for one who claims to have been liberated from Auschwitz. Nonetheless Lore accepts him companionship and help in stealing supplies, though she insists on keeping her distance and makes her anti-Semitism clear.
Of course, the trek has its share of crises—encounters with desperate survivors who pose a real threat, a ride with a group of American soldiers, a suspenseful train ride, a tragedy that causes tension between Lore and Thomas—and it effects a transformation in Lore, who by the time she reaches Hamburg has lost much of her old certainty about things. But the film doesn’t overplay the changes; even in the closing scenes it refuses to opt for the sort of bittersweet uplift one might expect.
Rather “Lore” moves ahead slowly and haltingly to an ambiguous close, keeping its focus narrowly on the children and portraying events from the perspective from the perspective of the young girl burdened with responsibilities beyond what should be expected of one her age and with the ideological remnants of the regime she grew up under—and which her parents had completely embraced. Shortland and co-writer Robin Mukherjee work on a relatively small scale, concentrating on vignettes that suggest the larger picture of a devastated land and a demoralized population still forlornly in the thrall of a defeated dictatorship. Even cinematographer Adam Arkapaw follows their lead, framing images that take advantage of the narrative’s mostly-forested locales but employ overpowering close-ups to convey a feeling of claustrophobia even in the outdoors. And while some of the adult supporting cast offer sharply observed turns, only Rosendahl really invests her character with a substantial degree of complexity.
The result is a film that’s remarkable for its unusual perspective and its intense portrayal of a society reeling from defeat and disillusionment, but one that never manages to connect emotionally as deeply as it might. While admirable for refusing to treat its atypical story in the obvious fashion, “Lore” doesn’t find an alternative that’s entirely successful.