London: Foreign Oscar contenders ‘Lore’ and ‘Children of Sarajevo’ impress

This weekend’s viewing at the London Film Festival brought me to a pleasingly round, if short-lived, statistic: I’ve now seen 20 of the 71 films entered for consideration in this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race. That’s a pretty small proportion still, yet even this sample pool feels thick with artistic virtue and contender potential alike. From this single score of films, I feel, it’d be quite easy to draw up five-nominee slate for the ages, with several worthy alternatives left over as change – and Australia’s entry, the lyrical-yet-bloodied “Lore” (A-) deserves to be near the top of the heap.

Whether for arthouse or Academy targeting purposes, “Lore” seems destined to be handed the ‘Holocaust film’ label – a tag that, however impartially descriptive, has lately called to mind a subgenre marked by earnest moral reinscription and grayscale suffering. Neither is a convention to which this crisp, cruel, often recklessly beautiful survival story, set against the dying breaths of Nazism, feels duty-bound. It’s as much a tale of an individual’s selfish spurts of guilt and rapture as one of any larger communal redemption or destruction, and as such feels very much of a piece with director Cate Shortland’s woozily desirous 2004 debut “Somersault” – to which “Lore” is a too-long-awaited follow-up.

Though the title is the diminutive form of the teenaged protagonist’s name, Hannelore, its parallel English meaning feels happily coincidental in a story where characters are confronted with new histories that point out the degree of fabrication in those they’ve previously accepted as gospel. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, with the Third Reich in tatters and Allied-defeated Germany slowly awaking to the absurd horrors of what just happened, not everyone is immediately prepared to accept Nazi doctrines as defunct lore. 

Political specifics are kept to a minimum from the film’s instantly urgent opening, wherein well-to-do Lore (striking first-timer Saskia Rosendahl) finds her mother and father, a high-ranking SS officer, frantically hoarding jewelry and destroying evidence of their misdeeds. Shortly afterwards, they surrender to the Allies, dispassionately abandoning Lore to fend not just for herself, but her five younger siblings, a very young baby among them. Cue a gruelling 500-mile trek to the safety of their grandmother’s farm in Hamburg, an ordeal repeatedly roadblocked by adult figures treading a thin line between hospitality and hostility.

If I liked the film less, it’d be tempting to redub it “Winter’s Eisbein,” though Lore if matches Ree Dolly for stoic endeavor, there’s something fascinatingly resistible about Shortland and Rosendahl’s read on the character. That’s partly because of the slightly disingenuous defiance with which she sticks to her family’s principles and prejudices, even when granted an unsolicited but invaluable ally in Jewish-identifying runaway Thomas (Kai Malina) – their relationship soldered by collaborative sin and instinctive sexual curiosity.

It’s not hard to see why this story appealed to Shortland: “Somersault” also explored the hardscrabble survival and implacable erotic need of a young female protagonist, and did so with a similarly chilly commitment to the sensual world. At certain angles, Rosendahl even evokes the sullen fullness of the young Abbie Cornish, who broke through so remarkably in that film; at others, you sense she’ll be a gift to any casting agents searching for someone to play Cate Blanchett’s younger self. Either way, she’s very much her own actress, superbly in command of Lore’s pressure even as her eyes occasionally flare with aptly overwhelmed panic.

Rosendahl is certainly a discovery, but the fastest-rising star of “Lore” is the brilliant cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (“The Snowtown Murders,” “Animal Kingdom”), who paints open wounds and festering corpses in the same oil-pastel palette as Germany’s emerald forestland, his sometimes queasily handheld camera so wedded to the landscape you expect dew to manifest on the screen. WWII has been so keenly scrutinized by filmmakers that there can scarcely be any untried perspectives left, but that of the defeated, disoriented, not-quite-disillusioned Nazi faithful is still a bold and tricky one to take, particularly married to an aesthetic approach as iridescently in-bloom as Shortland’s. A Holocaust film not necessarily seen with new eyes but felt with fresh skin, “Lore” keeps natural beauty and human ugliness almost alarmingly co-dependent.

Though a distinctly separate animal tonally, the Australian film makes a thematically elegant double-feature with Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Oscar submission “Children of Sarajevo” (B), another highly sentient sophomore feature from a female director that details the social and domestic wars that continue to smolder long after the fire of a larger conflict has burnt out – in this case, the crippling Siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s.

Though the English title sounds more worthily nutritious than Aida Begic’s bristling, often very funny film, it should be taken at face value: Rahima (the excellent Marija Pikic), our disenfranchised 20-something protagonist, is very much a child of the Siege, the experience of which has left her with a selectively silent resilience, but not much more. A restaurant worker who doubles as mother to her delinquent 14-year-old brother – who is beginning to act out in ways we gradually learn his now-reformed sister once did herself – she has sought refuge not in her ickily patriarchal community, but in the demure security of Islam. Few of her fellow survivors feel the same way: a symbol of comfort and protection to her, Rahima’s ever-present headscarf is a bothersome signal of rebellion to others.

Begic doesn’t impose much on a narrative on Rahima, preferring to rinse and repeat the gnawingly small battles in her daily routine, gradually amassing a claustrophobic sense of the walls Balkans – and Balkan women in particular – are still crashing against as they seek to rebuild their own with only rubble to hand. It’s plain, however, that she’s obstinately made things harder for herself with her more ascetic life choices: “Put on some makeup,” Rahima’s boss chides her. “Just because you’re covered, doesn’t mean you’re dead.”

Begic has a sharp ear, and though it’s handsomely shot in a mode of back-of-the-head Dardennism, “Children of Sarajevo” crackles chiefly with talk and sound. Set at New Year, the film is set to a near-constant soundtrack of celebratory fireworks that joltingly echo less jubilant past explosions for these orphans of the Siege.

Next from the London Film Festival, we’ll check in with some standout US documentaries, including Alex Gibney’s “Mea Maxima Culpa” and Ken Burns et al’s “Central Park Five.”