Are children innocent? The common answer is yes, but the new film co-written and directed by Cate Shortland offers up a startlingly new perspective on the question. Lore takes place in Germany just as the Third Reich is crumbling. Fearing capture, an SS officer relocates his family from their affluent home to the countryside, but he knows he’s only delaying the inevitable. But his children, including a baby, don’t know what’s happening or they’re feigning ignorance, either way they’re in for a rude awakening.
Before long the children find themselves abandoned, and the eldest, 14-year-old Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), takes charge. With no food and a dwindling supply of jewelry to barter with, Lore hits the road with her brothers and sister in tow. They set out for Grandma’s house, but the landscape is a post-apocalyptic nightmare. They quickly discover Germany is no more. The Allies have moved in, and taking care of former Nazis, even their children, is not high on the to do list.
Lore works like a reverse Red Riding Hood. It’s about a fairy tale coming to an end. One day you wake up and realize it was your parents and your people wearing sheep’s clothing. So what does that make you? Lore might have suspected, but she didn’t ask. It’s not like she could or would have done anything anyways. Lore is losing, or realizing she already lost, her purity. She’s still processing in the midst of hellish circumstances and surrounded by denial. There’s a long way to go.
A mysterious young man, Thomas (Kai Malina), embeds himself with Lore’s family. Lore is also going through her own sexual awakening, while grabbling with her passed down prejudices. As such, she has a strong mix of hatred and desire for Thomas. Her relationship with him progresses atypically. By the end, Thomas remains an enigma, and Lore is beyond wrecked. The confusion of the times, the isolation of puberty, and the pain of awareness cause a detachment in Lore.
Saskia Rosendahl is a striking presence for such a young actress. There’s a whirlwind of emotions inherent in this character, but she expertly internalizes most of them. The cinematography uses a mix of handheld realism and poetic expressionism. It’s trying to accomplish two things. It wants to bring a history to life and make it feel real, but it also wants the psychology of Lore on screen too. These gaps are bridged quite evocatively. The film leaves the future open. You wonder how Lore will grow up or whether any of this will influence the baby. The film’s survival elements tend to work better than these thorny questions, but it’s not meant to be simple and I’m glad the film asks them. Guilt and forgiveness are not easy things. It’s an arresting coming-of-age story with a point of view like no other.