Rightly or wrongly, the term ‘Holocaust film’ is often greeted with cynicism in Oscar-watching circles, where the Academy’s perennial recognition of cinema centered on that period of history as something of a running joke.
It’s not entirely a fair one, of course. 70-odd years on, the atrocities of Nazi Germany remain so vast, so politically and socially pervasive, that one can hardly blame filmmakers for continually seeking new angles within it – it’s a story that will never be completely told.
The Academy’s appreciation of the subject’s enduring artistic relevance covers such films as “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist” and “The Reader,” but it’s in the Best Foreign Language Film category where it reveals itself most consistently. The number of Holocaust-themed films nominated in the category over the years, up to and including last year’s “In Darkness,” has led some more jaded pundits to dismiss any such submission as awards bait of sorts. However, if Cate Shortland’s superb new film “Lore” – Australia’s Oscar submission, though wholly German-set and spoken – follows in their footsteps, it won’t be because it comfily ticks any boxes.
Portraying the dying days of the Third Reich via the semi-biographical story of Lore, the eldest child of a high-ranking Nazi family, left to fend for herself and her younger siblings when her parents surrender to Allied forces, it”s a film that bravely inverts the perspective of many a Holocaust drama. It”s a Nazi who”s the victim here, albeit a chilly one: the adolescent girl”s inscrutable behavior gradually reveals the crippling degrees of prejudice she”s been brainwashed into holding, and the film makes it clear that deprogramming is going to be an even longer journey than her cross-country trek to safety.
Though the film is based on proven source material – one segment of British novelist Rachel Seiffert”s Booker-shortlisted triptych novel “The Dark Room,” in turn based on the experiences of Seiffert”s mother – Shortland admits to being nervous when her producer first suggested she tackle the story.
“The perspective was scary, in terms of doing a film from the perpetrators” – or their children”s – point of view,” she says over the phone from Australia, where she”s home after a day spent shooting on a new Gallipoli-themed miniseries for local TV. She explains that she”d first been drawn to other strands of Seiffert”s novel with Jewish protagonists. “We kind of knew Lore”s story was less explored territory, and we worried that people would think that we weren”t considering the atrocities that had happened.”
Much of the difficulty lay with the characterization of Lore herself – a prickly figure not immediately sympathetic to viewers, but one whose complicated psychological arc is braided with more fundamental coming-of-age concerns. “Early on, people who read the script said that if I asked the viewer to inhabit Lore, I was going to have a problem,” says Shortland. “But in a funny way I think I did inhabit her, and that came as a shock.”
Shortland”s acclaimed first feature, 2004″s “Somersault,” was also preoccupied with teen sexuality in an unstructured social environment. “Somersault” was the film that launched Abbie Cornish to stardom, and “Lore” features a similarly revelatory talent in classically trained dancer and first-time actress Saskia Rosendahl. Initially rejected for being too beautiful – “an Aryan goddess,” says Shortland – she finally impressed the director with her combination of serenity and “an amazing kind of combustion.”
“It”s a bit of a kick in the guts when Lore just comes out with the National Socialist propaganda and the anti-Semitism. Because first you”re thinking about how pure and brave this poor girl is, looking after her brother and sisters, but at the same time she”s kind of a monster – a monster created by her time.”
Meeting the woman on whom Lore herself is based, meanwhile, also helped Shortland make emotional sense of the character. “I”ve met Rachel Seiffert”s mother and her aunt, and the thing that strikes me about them is that they still carry this enormous burden: the crimes that were committed were not their crimes, but it”s their blood. How do you live with that? How do you equate that with somebody that you really love?” She adds that Seiffert”s mother has now seen the film three times, describing her reaction as “very complicated.”
Meanwhile, Shortland has been pleasantly surprised by the warm responses to the film from a range of emotionally invested communities, noting that it”s also been programmed in a couple of Jewish-specific film festivals. “We tried to put the facts forward, and I think people respect that,” she says. “Even if they don”t love the film, they find the performances, and what the characters go through, truthful. I wasn”t interested in making a biopic or a historical drama. To me, it had to have a lot of relevance to contemporary society.”
To further her understanding of the narrative, Australian native Shortland considered her home country”s legacy of racial oppression – as well as that of South Africa, where, in the gap between “Somersault” and “Lore,” she lived for a time and adopted two children. “I looked at our own atrocities, and they”re not really being dealt with. In Germany, the transparency with which they deal with history, at least on an educational level or a government level, is incredible. Same thing in South Africa. Living in those two countries had a big influence on looking at Lore and how she confronts her own history.”
Perhaps appropriately, given these universalities, the film doesn”t feel much like a period piece – styled in the same brisk, exterior-dominated tones that made the contemporary “Somersault” so coolly bracing. “I love the detail of period pieces, but I also love looking beyond the corsets, beyond the hairstyles, and equating it to my own life – the morality, the humor.” She credits ace DP Adam Arkapaw – who recently made a splash in “Animal Kingdom” and “Snowtown” – with keeping the film fresh in this manner. “We”d be shooting in houses that were 200 years old, but he just has this kind of refreshing anarchy about him, and the way he was shooting it.”
Between its handheld camerawork and saturated jewelry-box palette, Arkapaw and Shortland have devised a roughly stylized aesthetic that she likens to a tainted fairyland – all the better to convey Lore”s growing disillusionment. “When I was about five years old, my mom gave me a big picture book and it was Red Riding Hood – but, like, the ‘Jaws” version of Red Riding Hood. Horrendous violence, but incredibly, incredibly beautiful. And it was tattooed into my soul or something. I think that”s in there.”
Australian-funded, but shot in Germany with a part-German crew, “Lore” is a proudly international production, even if it”s representing only one country at the Oscars. Against the advice of some producers, Shortland insisted on shooting the film in German – though her own command of the language is limited. She”s firm in her belief that any other option would amount to “some kind of bullshit reality,” and as excited as she is to be in the Oscar race, she”d rather not think of herself or the film as representing the Australian film industry on a global stage.
“I really do see ‘Lore” as an amalgamation,” she says. “Part German, part British, part Australian. And we had a fantastic patchwork of people working on it. But the really incredible part of the whole journey has been that the Australian government believed in the film, believed in what we wanted to do, and didn”t say no. It”s the way the industry”s got to go. The time of a white man in his forties making most films in Australia has come to an end.”
Though Shortland is reluctant to label herself a ‘female filmmaker” – as if that intrinsically defines the films she makes – she says it”s no coincidence that the Australian film industry boasts a higher proportion of high-profile female directors than most, from Jane Campion to Gillian Armstrong to Julia Leigh. Much of the credit, she explains, goes to producer Jan Chapman who, in the 1970s, started a women”s film cooperative, with particularly emphasis on the technology of filmmaking.
“They lobbied when the film school started, and women were a big part of the first intake. From that moment it”s sort of never been questioned. I was asked to direct a television show straight out of film school and I haven”t stopped working since. I never wanted to be a male director.”
So she”s not dismissing the gender factor out of hand, then? After all, both her features have been centered on complex, conflicted female protagonists. “I think I”m fascinated by the female psyche,” she says, after a moment”s consideration. “I”m fascinated by women”s sexuality and the way that they see the world: the details that make up that big canvas. It really excites me shooting like that.”