Lore melds a coming-of-age narrative with a superficially unique survival tale of young Nazi offspring and sets out to confront the bitter truths of adulthood responsibilities and the fallibility of one’s inherited ideology. Employing a dizzying amount of close-ups, highly saturated colors, and seemingly post-apocalyptic German landscapes, writer-director Cate Shortland charts the journey of five children of a high-ranking SS officer across the Bavarian countryside in May 1945 immediately after the death of Hitler and consequent fall of the Third Reich.
Following a manically shot and edited prologue of household entropy and confusion, stern and privileged 14-year-old Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is left abandoned and befuddled when her parents, anxiously chain-smoking and sullen, are taken into custody for war crimes. Just before their exit, Lore’s mother coldly implores that Lore take her four younger siblings—ranging in age from an infant to a pre-teen—and travel over 500 miles north to their grandmother’s house. Lore quickly settles into the role of maternal figure, lying to her sister and brothers for the sake of comfort, scraping meals together from nature or occasional sympathetic passersby, and maintaining the illusion that their parents will be fine.
The main shift in narrative occurs when they’re stopped by American soldiers asking to see Lore’s identification papers and a Jewish teenage boy, Thomas (Kai Malina), comes to the proverbial rescue, explaining to the soldiers that he’s her brother and that they were “moved from Buchenwald to Auschwitz until liberation.” Thomas tags along, offering compassionate support to the family—at this point malnourished, ridden with bug bites, and bordering on nihilistic—as they head through lushly photographed Bavarian forests and fields. Lore’s bigotry against Thomas’s ancestry doesn’t initially waver, made clear by her perpetual zombified staredowns, defiantly questioning his trustworthiness despite his outward benevolence, even yelling at him for caring for her siblings (“I don’t want you touching them, understand me?”). Nonetheless, he continues to help them, satisfied with his role as martyred guardian angel.
As with her showy but shallow debut feature, the color-gelgasm Somersault, Shortland wildly aestheticizes the ugly voyage to Lore’s grandmother’s house and attempts to immerse the audience in the POV of its young female protagonist. Lore’s stubbornness and age-bound naïveté make her a prime blank slate onto which Shortland applies her pet theme of awakening, both romantic and ideological in this case. Too young to fully understand the toll of being part of the Hitler Youth, but too old to be fully ignorant of the now-apparent atrocities committed by her father and the Nazis, Lore’s ambivalence toward Thomas affords Shortland the opportunity to tease out a shifting psyche and juxtapose it with budding lust. The portrait of their interplay, however, is diluted by romantic conventions in a very unconventional setting. With such a symbolically loaded parallel, it’s dismaying that Thomas, as the “other,” is such a stock character: a taciturn, mysterious boy—not unlike a stereotypically cute, brooding boy in an angst-ridden high school drama.
With a style that resembles a mixing pot of sensibilities evocative of Jane Campion, Terrence Malick, and even Steven Spielberg, Shortland conveys an expressionistic sense of atmosphere via shots of swirling skies and askew shots of nature that work toward the titular protagonist’s disorientation as often as it feels obsessed with its own poeticism. Shortland’s extreme, if over-reliant, use of close-ups is justified, however, if only because Lore‘s scope is so microcosmic and immersion is the key to Shortland’s clear-headedness. When the film concludes, with its purported significance put into context, it’s unremarkably hazy as opposed to powerful and resonant. Copious amounts of landscape and wilderness shots cover up its schematic plot, as its indirect visual allusions take precedence over thematic development. In its attempts to avoid overstating the obvious, Lore repeats the oblique.