Remove the prologue from Australian director Cate Shortland's German-language drama "Lore," which follows the teen daughter (newbie Saskia Rosendahl) of an S.S. officer on the lam in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and it would have much in common with any number of mopey Holocaust survivor dramas. But it's that extraordinary framing device that sets this movie apart from any precedent.
Because it culls from an established tragedy with recent historical ramifications, the Holocaust genre often suffers from a suffocatingly grim atmosphere predetermined by its setting. While not safe from these trappings, "Lore" frequently works around them with a provocative scenario that develops into a complex study of moral relativism. Even when it stumbles through an overly dreary fixation on symbolic cues to relay its central ideas, "Lore" remains a cut above the standards of a genre that tends to take its importance for granted.
Initially, the titular young German woman comes across in purely innocent terms, dwarfed by the shadow of her scowling father (Hans-Jochen Wagner), a proud Nazi seemingly in denial about the nascent collapse of the Third Reich. When both he and her equally sullen mother (Ursina Lardi) wind up in jail, Lore grabs her younger siblings and ventures into the German countryside, through decrepit and abandoned homes, ducking American forces at every turn.
For its first half hour or so, the movie merely follows the tropes of this scenario with a series of grim visuals and equally unnerving reaction shots, threatening to drown the semblance of subversiveness established by the opener. Then it adopts a new level of intrigue as Lore's biases come to the fore. In one decrepit home, she meets the stern Thomas (Kai Malina), whom she suspects may be a Jew. Her struggle to reconcile reservations about her capacity to trust him with an immediate need to rely on his help for survival further troubles the situation even as they exchange only the simplest of dialogue.
The script, by Shortland and Robin Mukherjee, stumbles whenever the pair attempts to render the mounting tension between Lore and Thomas in verbal terms, particularly once a potential sexual attraction enters their dynamic. Fortunately, the philosophical questions that "Lore" presents are largely rendered in lyrical terms. Thanks to cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, known for photographing "Animal Kingdom" and "Snowtown" — both films that depict a criminal underworld in harsh, alienating terms — the movie engages in a wildly unhinged dialogue with itself: Does Lore, trapped by forces beyond her control, deserve any less sympathy than the alleged concentration camp survivor she joins in her plight? The dry, overcast German countryside traps them both with a complete lack of discernment as the scenario takes on a post-apocalyptic minimalism that denies us the possibility of schadenfreude.
Nevertheless, Lore's private hell is marred by redundancies. Shortland rests on images to expressive effect and then drowns them in lethargy, particularly during the draggy middle section. "Lore" only regains its fundamental appeal once the character's resolve gives way to blatant frustration and she becomes a true creature of conflict. Rather than redefining her biases, she simply acts out in credible fits of rage.
By the time it winds down to a semi-conclusion at the end of its overlong 108-minute runtime, "Lore" keeps open the questions it establishes with the general scenario. In spite of its flaws, the lasting ambiguities allow the movie's spell to linger. It avoids exploring historical trauma in favor of poking at a wound that still bleeds to this day. Rather than attempt to mollify the damage, "Lore" examines it with startling precision. More than offering a fresh perspective, Shortland asserts that no single interpretation is the final word, history being an ever-expanding text — a notion that, in light of many dreary Holocaust stories, has an oddly refreshing ring to it.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Fairly well received at festivals in Sydney and Locarno, "Lore" is likely to maintain a decent amount of hype for the conversations its premise has the power to initiate (its next stop is the Toronto International Film Festival in September). Music Box Films has an uphill battle turning this one into a commercial hit, although it has solid prospects for foreign-language film recognition during U.S. awards season.