Directed by Cate Shortland, opens April 26 at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006
Any modern filmmaker caters to the senses of sight and sound by definition — it's a much trickier thing to convey tactile sensation to an audience. That's something that Australian director Cate Shortland proves to be quite good at in her post-World War II drama Lore. With carefully chosen close-ups and detailed sound design, Shortland is in every moment here concerned with how the environment around her characters feels — like the sensation of a comb being pulled slowly through tangled hair, the feeling of black tar squishing between fingers, or the pain of feet trudging through soggy mud.
This sensory emphasis is one way Shortland hopes to renew familiar material about children attempting to survive amidst the ruins of war (the film is based on a novella from Rachel Seiffert's The Dark Room). The other is in who her survivors are. Our teen protagonist Lore (short for Hannelore) and her siblings may be innocents, but their parents are most certainly not — they're in fact high-ranking Nazis who may have been closely involved in the running of a concentration camp.
After the family's attempt to flee from encroaching Allied forces fails, Lore is left on her own to lead her four young siblings across hundreds of miles of Black Forest and rewritten Allied territorial lines to their grandmother's home in Hamburg. A harrowing journey follows as Lore barters with her mother's remaining jewelry for supplies and navigates a post-apocalyptic landscape marked by corpses and the ever-present threat of sexual violence, horrors presented with a matter-of-fact chill that recalls Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf.
At first, Lore seems oblivious to the tragedies that led to her unmoored new world. But that changes as she discovers American pamphlets packed with photos of Holocaust atrocities. And her political awakening becomes intertwined with the sexual stirrings of puberty as she is joined on her travels by Thomas, a young Jewish man claiming to be a concentration camp survivor. The prejudices of her parents have imprinted themselves on Lore, who feels a deep suspicion toward the young man, but she's in need of Thomas' survival expertise and soon she finds herself wanting him in other ways as well.
Shortland, working with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, finds a nice analogue for her protagonist's changing mindset in her saturated-color images of shattered and foreboding landscapes, where sturdy architectural constants have been transformed into shaky shells of their past selves. It's also true though that Lore and especially Thomas remain ciphers to a large extent here. While Shortland is clearly interested in depicting how a nation grapples with the evils committed in its name, the most interesting glimpses into that idea are Lore's tangential encounters with other Germans, some of whom are so entrenched in denial that they blame themselves instead of their leaders. ("We broke his heart," says one elderly woman of Hitler. "He loved us so much.")
Lore's mental transformation is depicted mostly through broadly symbolic terms that ultimately feel a little pat. And even with the unique choice of central sufferer, the film never does entirely shake the feeling of familiarity created by the many survival stories preceding it, even when a late-film revelation meant to re-contextualize everything preceding it comes along. But the film does provide a great showcase in the titular role for the terrific first-time actress Saskia Rosendahl, who finds a tricky balance in making her anti-Semite learning the error of her ways alternately sympathetic and chilling. And Shortland's visual poetry has a power of its own, finding a way to invest an abstract psychological change with visceral force.