An Unpleasant Surprise, by David Bax
Stories set in and around the second World War tend not to be happy ones. That is especially true when the tales take place at the end of the war and in Germany. Cate Shortland’s Lore, however, seems to go out of its way to be unpleasant and with not enough justification to back it up.
In the final days of the war, as many Germans are only just starting to consider the possibility of losing it, the parents of the teenaged Lore – both members of the Nazi party – are fleeing to the countryside to avoid arrest by the Allied Forces. When it becomes clear that they cannot hide long, Lore’s mother gives her a small stash of money and jewels and tells her to lead her four younger siblings across the countryside to their grandmother’s house in Hamburg. They set out to traverse Germany on foot, by boat and by train, across territories controlled by the Americans, the Russians and the British. They tentatively join forces with a mysterious young man who is also running from or to something.
Being at the age where she’s old enough to know what’s going on in her country but too young to have had any direct responsibility for it, Lore is the perfect character onto which Shortland can project the psyche of post-war Germany. While Lore holds down the metaphorical front, the children’s cross-country trek allows us to experience, in a more literalized sense, the myriad aspects of the nation in the days and weeks after its defeat. The prevailing topic of conversation is the concentration camps. Most of the film’s characters had no knowledge of their existence prior to the Allies coming and many of them are sure the horrific photographs they’re seeing are staged propaganda. Most heartily convinced of that are the true believers in the Führer. They may have lost their friends and families in the fighting and they may be all but out of food to eat but they still have a picture of Hitler on the wall and resentment in their hearts toward the members of the populace they believe failed him. Finally, there are the Jewish people of Germany. On their journey and without identification papers, Lore and the other children are forced to stay off the main roads. In the woods and in abandoned farmhouses, they encounter Jews who may have been freed from the ghettos and the camps but who now find themselves wandering without home or country.
For the entirety of the film, we are experiencing a very limited, first-person point of view. From the beginning, while she vigorously brushes her hair in the bath, we are completely with Lore. When the brush catches on a wet knot of hair, we see it in close-up. And when Lore tugs through that knot, the amplified and internalized sound design nearly allows us to feel each individual strand that has been pulled loose from her skull in the larger victory over the tangle. This approach, both aesthetic and literary, continues unabated. We only learn her sibling’s names gradually, as they are spoken naturally by or to Lore. On at least one occasion, a key bit of information, though being known to one of the younger brothers, is unknown to us because Lore didn’t ask and wasn’t told. Though a perfectly legitimate method of storytelling, the impressionistic – almost fetishistic – close-ups and the experiential waves of full, rushing sound begin to feel pretentious as the film pushes on.
It doesn’t help that Lore experiences, in this same intense way, nearly everything bad that could possibly have been experienced on this trip. Lore unfolds by the same essential rules of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. In both cases, the author is presenting a tapestry of a place and time. But, by doing so with only one main character, it becomes necessary to have that single person undergo an almost ludicrous number of hardships.
In the role of Lore, Saskia Rosendahl is a treasure. Shortland demands a great deal of her star and Rosendahl’s quiet but uninhibited focus proves equal to every task. That’s not enough, though, to ease the needless overexertion and unpleasantness of the rest of the work. Lore the character is worthwhile but Lore the film is a good idea overdone to death.