“Lore” is now playing at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, 1:49, 3 stars out of 4. I’ll be doing a post-show chat after the 7:05 p.m. showing Monday in Sundance’s Overflow Bar — it should start about 9 p.m. if you just want to come for the chat.
“Lore” is unlike any movie about the Holocaust that I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s because writer-director Cate Shortland is Australian, not German, and so doesn’t feel the weight to exorcise demons and “tell the truth” the way many well-meaning films from Germany seem to.
Instead, Shortland has gone more in the direction of her first film, 2004’s “Somersault.” Both films are about teenage girls trying to navigate circumstances they clearly aren’t emotionally ready for. It’s just that, in this case, the girl is a Nazi.
Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is a 14-year-old German girl who knows something’s very wrong when she gets home from school. Her SS officer father and mother are packing up, quietly panicked. The Allies are at the country’s doorstep, and the family needs to flee. The parents are quickly seized, and it’s up to Lore to guide her four younger siblings, including a baby, through the Black Forest to her grandmother’s house.
If that sounds more like a fairy tale than a historical drama, the comparison is deliberate. Shortland is almost Malick-like in her use of the natural world to tell her story, with long takes of the family trudging through dark woods and bright meadows, hiding in decrepit farmhouses, scrabbling for enough food to survive. Politics takes a back seat to survival.
Eventually, the siblings come across a young man named Thomas (Kai Malina), who has a six-pointed star among his papers. Thomas has had years of practice surviving on the run, hiding out, and he’s able to procure food and transportation for the family. But Lore has been trained all her life to hate Jews, and the film very subtly tracks her growing confusion over those prejudices, and her adolescent feelings towards Thomas.
One could have made a much more didactic film with the same story — German girl learns Jews aren’t so bad after all! — but Shortland is after something much more elliptical here. She ties Lore’s slow moral awakening to the universal transition of adolescence, as children come to realize that their parents don’t have all the answers, and come to rebel against those answers. It’s a tricky balanced to pull off, but “Lore” works, especially thanks to Rosendahl’s fearless, unvarnished performance.
Here’s a girl we should hate — I thought of her as the Nazi girl in “Schindler’s List” who nastily shouts “Good bye, Jews!” as Jewish families are rounded up — and yet we become deeply invested in her journey.