Perhaps the best indictment of prejudice doesn’t come from a think tank report or some scholarly consensus. All lyricist Oscar Hammerstein III had to do was name his classic South Pacific show tune “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” and the truth was out there for all to hear. Indeed, as the song progresses, the famed name behind such stage (and screen) classics as Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music argued that parents, and the part they play in raising their children, are the source of almost all the hate in society. After all, it’s innocence tarnished and stained that lead to bigotry, racism, and the horrific acts associated with same.
When we first meet Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) and her Hitler Youth siblings, they are ensconced in a personal propaganda that sees hints of horrific scientific experiments and automatic proclamations of Führer allegiance. But by the time they have traveled nearly 600 miles to be with their aging grandmother, their frame of failed Reich references is altered irrevocably. Initially, Lore can’t help but believe victory is near for her beloved Fatherland, even as her mother (Ursina Lardi) burns important government documents and her father (Hans-Jochen Wagner) frets about having to return to the military or prison. When the truth comes out, the title character must take charge, getting the rest of her family to safety by any means necessary.
So, yes, Lore is one of those films that is more about the journey than the destination. We wonder if the kids will ever get to Hamburg and their grandmother, but that becomes secondary to the many eye-opening life lessons Australian director Cate Shortland has in store for her underage characters. Certainly we will encounter death, the Holocaust (by way of a helpful concentration camp refugee, Thomas), and the inevitable post-defeat desire for countryman to turn on countryman. We see this latter aspect almost from the beginning, with Lore having to beg from others for food and said Samaritans growing more and more tired of taking care of the Reich’s entitled leftovers.
There’s an intriguing backstory here, one hinted at by the mother’s rabid desire to discard the bookshelves filled with medical papers cluttering up one room. There’s even a pair of mini-Aryan twins that present some telltale evidence. But Lore is not interested in war crimes. Instead, it wants to concentrate on the bigger wrongs committed in the name of country. By brainwashing an entire generation to weep at burned photos of their Führer, to see little children mimic adult devotion while singing a syrupy song in love of Germany and its call to duty, we witness real destructive power. All throughout Lore, our heroine is faced with the truth about what she was taught, only to have her will pulled out from under her by the stark reality of it all. Corpses fill almost every corner of the voyage, from a dead woman’s legs covered in ants to a final telling tableau of a suicide.
Then there are the living leftovers of the Nazi regime. They are a complicated and confused lot, lost out of a legitimate feeling of being abandoned by their no longer empowered bureaucracy. Some have reverted back to their agrarian nature, while others are looking for a way to keep the Allies from destroying what little they have. This is one of the rare WWII films where the Americans are not viewed as conquering heroes. Lore and her group have a run in with the GIs which seem to indicate a tired indifference to the German people’s lot. It may legitimize what many thought at the time, but it also empowers our enemy a bit.
Yes, this film focuses on a kind of non-political positioning, where ideology doesn’t gel with everyday struggles. But Lore also wants sympathy from another specious source: youth. We are supposed to see Lore, her younger sister, her twin brothers, and that nonstop squealing baby as victims, the fallout from a wrong-minded madman trying to take over the world…except, they seem more than happy to be complicit in the crusade. They fight harder against the rising tide against them than their parents, who appear more than willing to surrender. Then there are the country folk who find them deplorable, empowering their sense of persecution. All the while, Shortland keeps the dialogue down to a minimum, making sure we guess at what’s going on.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when Thomas becomes an object of Lore’s growing sexual curiosity. Unlike other films made from such material, we don’t get underage couplings and drawn out cow eyed longings. Instead, Shortland lets us see her heroine’s yearnings, and then indicates that they will be reserved for another day, another film. If anything, our Holocaust survivor is a red herring, a way for the narrative to deal with the dilemma of mentioning the Final Solution without having to wantonly wallow in it. Even better, a sequence on a train where some adults argue that the entire genocide subject was “faked by the Americans” is more telling than 10 hours of gruesome mass grave footage.
This doesn’t mean that Lore is some kind of subtle masterpiece. No, Shortland and her storytelling can be hamfisted when they want to be. A decent man along the shore struggling to feed his own complaining brood becomes a quasi-rapist at the presentation of a piece of worthless jewelry while grandmother, the obvious objective for our travelers, turns out to be a bitter old crone who clearly wishes Hitler had won the war. Unlike a film such as Michael Haenke’s brilliant The White Ribbon, which showed how youth could be corrupted to set-up the next generation of dictators, Lore wants to argue that things can change. Even our lead puts away her misspent past to argue for an aggressive, enlightened future.
With its leisurely pace and lengthy run time, Lore will make those expecting a quick and easy indictment of the entire postwar world unhappy. This is a film that builds slowly, slyly, significantly. While the end result may cause a bit of plotpoint frustration (more than one reveal reinterprets everything we’ve seen before) the overall effect is evocative and enigmatic. Unlearning years of hate may be hard. In the case of Lore and her still forming family members, it may be impossible.