Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland’s “Lore,” which was shortlisted for the foreign Oscar, is now playing in limited release. After her 2004 debut “Somersault” broke out Sam Worthington and Abbie Cornish, Shortland took her time coming back to helm another film. Set in vastly different territory, World War II drama “Lore” made its debut in Toronto. It was worth the wait.
While both films center on teenage girls, “Somersault” takes place in contemporary Australia and German-set “Lore” focuses on the daughter of German Nazis. When Lore’s parents are imprisoned by Allied forces, she leads her younger siblings toward refuge with their grandmother. Shortland’s saga is a psychologically complex examination of guilt and inheritance, as well as identity and sexuality. It plays like a dark fairy tale and offers a rare perspective on the holocaust.
Shortland talks below about her hiatus, living in Germany while developing “Lore” from the novella “The Dark Room,” finding her actors, working with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (“Animal Kingdom,” “The Snowtown Murders”) and the best advice she ever got.
Sophia Savage: ‘Somersault’ was an excellent debut. What projects were you working on before diving into ‘Lore’?
Cate Shortland: After ‘Somersault’ I wasn’t sure I wanted to make films anymore, or at least for a while. I worked on some TV and developed an American feature, for four years, which never got made. My partner was working in South Africa on a script and I went and lived in Johannesburg. And it was there I started to work on Lore, travelling a few times back and forward to Germany. We also adopted two children and I was so happy to be with them and not working.
SS: Was there a personal connection to the source material for ‘Lore’ that drew you to it?
CS: At university I had studied History, majoring in Fascism and African American History, a big part of which was slavery. So I have always been interested in the corruption of power, statewise and even in a microcosm like a family. My partner Tony’s family left Germany in 1937 as Jewish refugees so this also gave me the opposite perspective to the book, ‘The Dark Room.’ Lore was the most compelling novella in ‘The Dark Room’ because it was from the perspective of the perpetrators. This fascinated me as I had never seen it before.
SS: How crucial was moving to Germany for the making of the film? Would you like to do something similarly immersive again?
CS: Yes. It was an incredible life experience and one of the great things about making a film. How much you have to live your work for the duration. It gave me a familiarity with the culture and language I would never have obtained living in Sydney. As well as doing workshops with elderly people who had been in Hitler Youth and Bund Deutscher Madel. At times it was difficult, as I did six weeks in Berlin on my own with my baby daughter. And the material I was researching was horrible. I visited many concentration camps and really read a lot and watched a lot of documentaries dealing with the Holocaust and the war and its effect on the German people. So sometimes there were tears and anger. It is easier when I have my family around. Denial is always the hardest thing to deal with. When I dealt with transparency and truth, it was always inspiring.
SS: You have a great eye for talent. Cornish and Worthington broke out with ‘Somersault,’ and Saskia Rosendahl will likely do the same here. Do you prefer to work with unknown actors, or is there just a particular quality you are looking for?
CS: Truth. I think like every director– just believability and emotional truthfulness. As well as unpredictability. You want to be surprised by your cast. Saskia and Kai Malina (Thomas) are both very brave actors. Very easy to work with. For me as a director, working with both of them was a real privilege.
SS: Female sexuality is at the center of your two films. How do you hope your films are contributing to that dialogue as it exists in the cinema?
CS: Sexuality was at the centre of ‘Somersault’ but just one of the elements in ‘Lore’. Lore is fourteen so of course it is going to surface at some point in the film. The culture I live in, Australia, also informs how I look at sex. I think we spend half the year in the heat, we don’t wear many clothes, we come from a strange convict colonial past where sex was used as a weapon. When whites landed, there were 16 men to every white woman. I think this still permeates the culture, this odd sexual predatory thing. But I also think it makes Australian women really tough. In a good way. Sex is not something so exotic here and I think in my films it is a part of the landscape. It is not fetishised here in the same way as in Europe. But the issues around it are still as complex and compelling, I am interested in the psychology of it.
SS: What was your process like with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw?
CS: Adam Arkapaw is young and inspiring. He works very hard to achieve beauty and freshness in his work. We worked with the designer Silke Fischer very closely, and were inspired by the U.S. film ‘Ballast’ and the Russian film ‘Come and See.’ Both are landscape-based, and about adolescents. Both deal with violence and its impact on the young leads. We did a lot of improvising and Adam had a very short time to shoot, as we had four hours often, as the kids had to be off set so quickly due to German law. So it was fast and stressful. But Adam did such a wonderful job. I love his work on the film.
SS: If you could only watch one movie over and over again for the rest of your life, which would it be?
CS: ‘Badlands.’ ‘Taxi Driver.’ ‘Cyclo.’ Sorry, that is three…..
SS: You’re directing a silent black and white film; which two living actors do you cast?
CS: Saskia Rosendahl and Casey Affleck.
SS: Best advice you’ve ever received? And the worst?
CS: I don’t think I remember bad advice. Only good. The producer on ‘Somersault,’ Jan Chapman, sent me a beautiful Chanel lipstick wrapped in a letter. The letter said, ‘Something beautiful to ease the pain.’ She then asked me to cut my shooting ratio in half. She has great style. Barry Kosky, a very brave theatre director told me, ‘Tears are for the bedroom,’ when I asked him if he is ever scared.