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Film Review


April, 1945, and the Nazi empire has collapsed under the onslaught of the Russian army pushing into Berlin and the American, British, and French moving west. The American and the Russian armies meet on the Elbe River on April 25, immortalized in that famous photograph of the handshake over the river. On April 30th, as the Battle of Berlin rages, Hitler kills himself and a week later all German forces have surrendered to the Allies. German cities were in ruins, with widespread starvation and disease, and with the Russian Army terrorizing the Germans in the Russian sector through robbery and rape. Four million German soldiers had been killed or were missing (including one million POW's in Russia). About three and a half million German civilians were killed but this does not include the 200,000 German and Austrian Jews murdered in the death camps. The Allies set up military governments in each sector and began to organize relief and medical aid, but it would take years for any sense of normalcy to be established in West Germany, and longer still in East Germany, under Soviet control.

Probably because Germans were unsympathetic victims, relatively few films have looked at that immediate post war period and its effects on the survivors. Surprisingly, an Australian film maker, Cate Shortland ("Somersault") has produced a film taken from a novel about a Nazi family, The Dark Room (2001), by Rachel Seiffert. Seiffert's book was an account of her mother's (Lore) struggle to come to terms with her dark legacy and an epic journey. Seiffert's grandfather, a high ranking SS officer, and his equally true believer wife, had 5 children. Lore, the oldest, is 14, her sister Liesel is a year or so younger, two brothers about 10, and an infant, Peter. Lore's parents idolize Hitler, and understand that they will likely be arrested for war crimes. The film opens with the children playing as their father comes rushing in from an army truck. The parents pack up, destroying volumes of incriminating documents, and the truck takes them to an isolated mountain cottage somewhere in Southern Germany. Lore packs a beloved small porcelain deer. The father leaves, perhaps to hide, and the mother tells Lore that she must take her 4 siblings to their grandmother's house near Hamburg, 500 miles north. The mother gives Lore jewelry to trade for food on their journey, and leaves the children to go to an internment camp. She stresses to Lore that this is not a prison, but a camp, as she is not a criminal. All of this is seen through Lore's eyes, who has been thoroughly indoctrinated to believe in the Fuhrer and the inevitability of Germany's victory. Included in this indoctrination of course is the Nazi hatred for the Jews. The mother is stone cold, and barely displays any sorrow at leaving her children. Her grief is reserved for the death of her Fuhrer and the Nazi dream.

Lore begins the journey with everyone walking, carrying suitcases, and she pushing Peter's pram. She has only a vague idea how to get to Hamburg, but her mother has told her that the trains are running. Her mother had also said that the Americans kill children. As they are walking down a country road, a small American Army truck comes by, Lore is terrified, but the truck continues on. After a day or so they come to a farmhouse, where Lore trades some of the jewelry for food. They stay for a few days. Stopping at another farm house, she trades more jewelry for food, and the farm wife asks about her mother. Lore said she left, and the woman says that she expected that her mother would be in prison by now. This is the first of many incidents that begin to differ from what that Lore has been taught and believes in. They continue on through the gorgeous countryside, at first with no sign of war, but soon begin to encounter horrible things, such as a bloody corpse of a woman who has probably been raped. Her bloody legs are covered with ants, which fascinate the boys. At another farm house they encounter a kind elderly farm wife who takes them in, and coos Nazi aphorisms to the baby. The farm wife laments that "he loved us so much, but we weren't worthy". She is looking at a portrait of Hitler hanging on her wall. They continue on, and in a small village crowded with refugees, see photographs of the death camps that have been posted by occupation authorities to show the Germans what they have done. All resent and disbelieve the posters, but Lore is fascinated. She spots something in one of the photographs that we only later come to understand, and she takes the poster. During this odyssey, she sees a young man, Thomas, who is also a refugee. He rarely speaks, but attaches himself to Lore's group and soon a chemistry develops between them. She has discovered he is a Jew, or at least impersonating one, so is repelled, but at the same time fascinated. She will ultimately discover the truth about Thomas. Their journey continues with various encounters, and is really an odyssey through an increasingly strange and often dangerous land now that Germany has been defeated and occupied.

"Lore" is a complex and far from predictable story. Shortland shows us a coming of age of a young girl against the backdrop of a perilous journey, and how embedded the malignancy of Nazism is in the population, especially the older generation. The older Germans are convinced that the death camp photographs are phony, and that the Jews are loathsome and responsible for all of Germany's misfortunes. These are people who idolized their Fuhrer and are oblivious to Nazi evil. In contrast to this societal sickness, much of Lore's journey is through stunningly gorgeous countryside, often punctuated with lovely closeups of flowers, trees and insects, as if to prove that life continues. Shortland may also have wanted to taunt us by asking how such evil could exist amongst such natural beauty. The cinematography is absolutely beautiful, often shot at unusual angles and elevations; clearly done by a very accomplished cinematographer. None of the actors are familiar to us but their performances are uniformly outstanding. The children are astonishingly good. Editing is excellent, with a great economy of footage. Often completion of a particular incident isn't shown, only the following day's events. The soundtrack is lovely, at times strange and ominous, yet classical. Shortland has produced a brilliant film with such power that I could barely move out of my seat after the credits rolled. "Lore" is a great film in every sense and I would be astonished if it is not the German entry for best foreign film at the 2014 Oscars. In German with English subtitles and credits (because of the joint Australian production). 108 minutes long. Just opened at the Embarcadero Landmarks.

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