With her beautiful and expressive debut feature film "Somersault," writer/director Cate Shortland established herself as a filmmaker with a sharp and observant sense of the emotional complexities of young women. And now, eight years later, she returns with belated follow-up effort "Lore," another tale of a young woman not only navigating her burgeoning sexuality, but the emotional and moral fallout of post World War II Germany, all while she battles to keep her family together and alive as power in the country changes hands.
When we first meet Hannelore (Saskia Rosendahl) and her siblings, they are already on the move. It's spring 1945, Hitler is dead and the Nazis are on the run. Vati, her SS father, and Mutti, her mother, burn documents, taking anything of value they can, and pack everyone up and move out to a cabin the country. But allied forces are moving in, and it isn't long before Lore is left to lead her young charges to safety. Given money, items to bargain with and a plan of action by her mother before she voluntarily goes in to give herself up, Lore begins a cross country journey to bring everyone to their grandmother's house in Hamburg.
And while "Lore" does stick to the expected template of a point A to point B journey or adventure (for lack of a better word), Shortland's interests thankfully lie elsewhere, contributing to the film's more resonant character texture and depth. Lore has essentially been raised under the ideals and concepts of the Nazi party, but as it becomes clear that Hitler's vision of Germany will come for naught, everything her personal belief system has been built on begins to crumble. Images of mass graves and concentration camps are posted in towns and villages, giving Lore a bracing perspective of the war she's never seen or heard of before. And combined with her own coming of age, particularly in a moment when sex is being used both as currency and as a blanket of security, Lore struggles to make heads or tails of her world.
Complicating matters is the arrival of Thomas, a Jew, who provides for and protects Lore and her brothers and sisters, but with a vague idea of what he looks to gain out of the matter. He makes no secret of his attraction to Lore, but stops short of taking advantage of her. And while his care and concern over the younger ones is seemingly sincere, he's aloof enough that he could likely decide to go back out on his own at any moment. It speaks to the temporary and uneasy alliances of the time, and clearly Lore grapples with both his assistance and distance, complicated by her longstanding training that Jews can't be trusted.
It's a heady mix of thematic ideas, and while compelling, Shortland misses fully delivering on them thanks to an approach that at times can be coldly enigmatic. Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw ("Animal Kingdom," "The Snowtown Murders"), Shortland takes an almost Terrence Malick-level interest in the rural surroundings that Lore, Thomas and the group traverse. Animals are of particular interest with snails, turtles, chicken, fish, sheep, crabs and more getting patient attention from the camera. And numerous shots of trees waving in the breeze, fields undulating in the afternoon and clouds rolling across the sky suggest nature as an anonymous spectator to the horrors happening around it.
And as lovely as all this is, it sometimes comes at the expense of continuing to explore the characters and their struggle with understanding and surviving everything that has monumentally changed around them. And this isn't helped by Shortland's cryptic approach, which almost completely internalizes Lore's turmoil, masking motivations that during key moments would've added greater impact, rather than giving them a slightly unsatisfying air of mystery.
While a film of great craft, strongly performed by the cast across the board, and particulary by the lead, newcomer Saskia Rosendahl, "Lore" never lets the audience in close enough for it to be a truly embraceable picture. It's certainly admirable, and we've rarely seen a WWII film approached from this angle, but one wishes "Lore" would let the audience in a bit closer. [B-]