Spoiler Scale (How spoilery is this article on a scale of 1 to 10?): 4
For her second feature film (Australia’s submission to the 85th Annual Academy Awards in the Best Foreign-Language Picture category), co-writer/director Cate Shortland (Somersault (2004)) adapts Rachel Seiffert’s critically-acclaimed novel, The Dark Room (2001), which contemplates the effect of the fall if the Nazis upon individual Germans. In extracting only one of Seiffert’s three narratives, Shortland opts for a vantage point that proves to be more personal and less political. The end results are mixed.
The story begins with the evacuation of a family from urban Germany at the conclusion of World War II. The father (a military officer) and the mother (a member of the Nazi intelligentsia) – who are always addressed by their formal names – abandon their five children early in the film to meet their own fate. And Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), the eldest of the Hitler Youth (one would guess to be 16 years old), attempts to lead the children through the treacherous, retaliatory, and anarchic terrain of post-war Germany to reach the relative seclusion of their grandmother’s house on the coast. Along the way, they accept the necessary assistance of a young Jewish man – Tomas (Kai Malina) – who is barely older than Lore.
As the centerpiece of the film, the title character is deservedly complex. We learn just enough about the mother to establish the frigidity of Lore’s own emotional baseline. Lore’s programmed assumptions about humanity – less pliable than her younger siblings – begin to die hard as she is forced to view graphic pictures of the holocaust in an Allied bread line. The sheer need to survive – and to keep one’s family alive – would tend to knock most people off their moral center under such circumstances. And the arrival of Tomas not only complicates these conflicts, but begins to awaken her sexuality through a cycle of repulsion/attraction. In a portrayal that at times could easily stray into the icky and exploitative, newcomer Rosendahl is nothing short of a revelation.
Undeniably, Shortland knows how to direct actors. But after an eight-year hiatus, Shortland brings her considerable visual storytelling talents to bear in a manner that undermines the performances. While Shortland teases the viewer with the possibility of immersion into Lore’s inner world (e.g., the copious use of the shallow focus and the handheld), she also takes entirely too much time to smell the flowers (e.g., shots of a snail climbing up a branch, a bee in the throes of pollination, etc.) Through the (over-)use of this “fractured, impressionistic imagery as a mirror of moral dislocation” (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly), Shortland’s approach keeps us at arm’s length and ultimately stunts the impact of the ending.
Lore never quite rises to the level of Europa, Europa (1990) – an exploration of similar territory from another angle. But for those who appreciated Jennifer Lawrence’s startlingly raw debut in Winter’s Bone (2010), Rosendahl’s breakthrough performance alone is worth the price of admission.