Recent remarks by the head of the National Rifle Association in response to the Sandy Hook massacre, claiming that the only answer to “bad guys with guns” is an increased presence of “good guys with guns,” might serve to stimulate some overdue consideration of the whole concept of good guys and bad guys. It’s deeply ingrained in our culture to view the world as being divided up this way, despite all the daily-gathered evidence that dark and light sides dwell within each of us. And when we read a story or go to a movie, we are programmed to identify the good and bad guys as swiftly as possible in order to know where to invest our emotional attachment.
But the older we get and the more stories that we take in, the less satisfying such easy-to-digest rosters of characters become, while the morally ambiguous or growing, changing protagonist begins to exert a greater fascination. In art as in life, the ability to calibrate our responses continually to a person is a sign of increasing maturity and sophistication.
Nevertheless, even adults are challenged and disturbed when a movie like Cate Shortland’s Lore, currently at Upstate Films, asks us to see the waning days of World War II through the eyes of a German family that is thoroughly immersed in Nazi ideology, and even to feel some compassion for them. The Australian/British/German production is by no stretch of the imagination a right-wing propaganda film; but it wants to make the point that in war, children in particular suffer horribly, no matter which side they’re on.
It doesn’t help that Lore (short for Hannelore), the 14-year-old girl who must lead her four younger siblings on a long, grueling journey through the German countryside in hopes of reaching their Omi’s (Grandma’s) house, is rather a bitch. Newcomer Saskia Rosendahl does a remarkable job in the difficult role. Like her mother (Ursina Lardi) and grandmother (Eva-Maria Hagen) before her, Lore tends to be harsh and punitive and to look for someone else to blame anytime something goes wrong. And go wrong things often do, right from the outset, as her SS officer father (Hans-Jochen Wagner) torches all his incriminating files and puts down the family dog as they are forced to flee the advancing Allied troops.
A rustic cottage in rural Bavaria proves not much of a haven, as food runs short and neighbors prove less than welcoming to the clueless adolescent girl who automatically greets new acquaintances with a “Heil Hitler.” Soon Vati (Daddy) has to head back to the front; not long after, the thin, stressed-out, chain-smoking Mutti (Mommy) brings word that their beloved Fuehrer is dead and that she will have to go to an internment camp. She gives Lore all the family’s remaining money and valuables and instructs her to buy train tickets to Hamburg, near where Omi lives.
By the time Mutti departs, she has apparently already been raped by soldiers, and the pervasiveness of rape as a weapon of conquest is but one of the harsh realities that will soon become the day-to-day “new normal” for Lore and her siblings. The trains are quickly commandeered by the Allied armies, so they must walk the 500 miles. Starvation dogs their steps, especially with baby Peter (Leander Holaschke) in tow; Lore soon must trade a piece of jewelry just to induce a nursing mother they encounter to breastfeed the infant one time.
What makes this movie so shocking is the matter-of-factness of the way in which the children – including younger sister Liesel (Nele Trebs), about 11, and twin boys Jürgen (Mika Seidel) and Günter (André Frid), about 8 – confront the horrors that they run across in one ruined farmhouse after another: the bloody body of a rape victim crawling with ants, the farmer who has committed suicide, the paranoid survivors who refuse them food. The human devastation contrasts bizarrely with the serene beauty of the rural landscapes through which an invading army has quickly passed. Adam Arkapaw’s gorgeous, sun-drenched cinematography serves up glorious summer days in the German countryside, where nature goes as blithely as before while the people flee or go into hiding.
After a while, Thomas (Kai Malina), a mysterious young man who is attracted to Lore, begins to follow the refugee children. Lore mistrusts him in spite of his efforts to help them obtain food, find shelter and make progress in their trek. Thomas is the only one of them who has identification papers; they and the tattoo on his arm mark him as a Jew fleeing a concentration camp. Lore’s inability to transcend her indoctrinated hatred of Jews keeps flaring, even as she comes to accept how dependent the remnants of her family have become on the youth.
Nothing in the movie Lore follows the easy formulas that we are used to seeing in films about Nazis, and that fact is going to make some audiences very uncomfortable. There is no moral message beyond the obvious one: that war is a catastrophe for all it touches, but children most of all. Under its influence even “bad guys” suffer, and even “good guys” do unconscionably brutal things. And there is no moral uplift at the end of the tale, no sense of triumph even for the survivors. Some will find Lore too depressing to sit through, but it’s an extraordinarily powerful, grimly beautiful piece of cinema for the stern of stomach.