To help us grasp the enormity of the Holocaust, we have the testimonies of survivors, of liberators, even of bystanders, but what about the perpetrators and, even more, their children, who grew up worshipping Adolf Hitler?
“Lore,” the movie, grapples with that complex question from the perspective of the title character, a 14-year-old girl (impressively played by Saskia Rosendahl), daughter of a high-ranking SS officer and his equally fanatical wife.
As Germany collapses in the spring of 1945, the Allies arrest Lore’s father as a war criminal, as well as her mother. Before her mother departs, she charges Lore to take her four younger siblings, the youngest one little more than a baby, across the rubble-strewn fatherland to her grandmother’s farm in Bavaria.
Along the way, Lore and her charges get a lift from American soldiers; she is almost raped by a German farmer; she sees a brother shot dead by a Red Army guard and trades the family jewels for a loaf of bread.
She also encounters a cross section of her countrymen and women, barely able to comprehend what has happened to their fatherland and fuehrer, and confronted for the first time with the crimes of the Nazi regime.
As one who has lived through and participated in a good part of this history, I can attest that the reactions of many of these solid burghers ring absolutely true.
Shown the first photos of a death camp, an elderly woman averts her eyes and moans, “If the fuehrer had known what was going on, he would have put a stop to it.”
A man looking admiringly at a framed photo of Hitler blames the German people for letting the fuehrer down and admonishes the volk for “breaking his heart.” Still another patriot informs bystanders that the emaciated prisoners in an Auschwitz photo are actually actors hired by the Americans.
Lore angrily tears down the American “propaganda” poster but soon faces a more personal problem.
Thomas, a strange young man, attaches himself to the young refugees and becomes their self-appointed protector and food scavenger. Lore is drawn to Thomas (Kai Malina) emotionally and physically, until he produces his ID papers at a checkpoint.
The documents, and the tattooed numbers on his arm, identify him as a Jewish concentration camp survivor, a member of that race Lore has been taught to despise from infancy.
She threatens Thomas that her father, the imprisoned SS officer, “will deal” with him and lashes out that “all you filthy Jews are liars.” But is the young man actually a Jew or only impersonating one?
Toward the end of the film, Lore is still confused and torn, but gradually begins to question the deeds of a father and fuehrer she once adored and trusted unquestioningly.
In some respects, the film is a curious one. Young Saskia Rosendahl in the title role gives an impressive performance, and the portrayal of the average German confronting the collapse of his world is spot on.
At the same time, director Cate Shortland depicts the wandering of the five kids in a nightmare world at an oddly slow, at times static, pace.
Oddest, however, is that “Lore” was submitted into this year’s Oscar competition for best foreign-language film by Australia.
The Aussies can hardly be considered “foreign” (meaning non-English) under the rules of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Actually, the movie is entirely in German, with a cast of German actors. What makes it “Australian” is that director Shortland was born and bred Down Under.
During Shortland’s visit to Los Angeles to boost her film’s Oscar chances (it didn’t make the cut), the Journal asked her how she came to make a movie in a language she hardly speaks, and her answers were quite intriguing.
“I have always been interested in the effects of living in a totalitarian society, and especially what that does to children,” she said.
Shortland also has given considerable thought to the issue of national guilt, noting that “Australians are still in denial [over] what their ancestors did to the Aborigines in settling my country.”
Her interests became even more personal when she married a Jewish man whose family had left Berlin in 1936 and settled in Sydney. Four years ago, she converted to Judaism, observing, “I am no longer Cate the shiksa.” The couple has added more diversity to their family by adopting two black children.
All these factors fused when she read “The Dark Room,” a novella written by Rachel Seiffert, whose protagonist’s experiences closely resemble those of the film’s Lore.
“I was terrified when I started out to make this film,” Shortland confessed, partly because of the language problem in interacting with the cast and crew, but also her fear that the film could be taken as an apology for the Nazi regime.
The fear is unfounded. The Nazi indoctrination of German youth was intense beyond belief, and an acknowledgment that the German people — guilty or not — suffered greatly during the war in no way diminishes the unspeakable crimes committed by them and in their name.
“Lore” opens Feb. 8 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center 5 in Encino, as well as at Edwards Westpark 8 in Irvine.