As Cate Shortland’s Lore opens, the lavishly appointed home of an SS Nazi officer and his equally committed wife is being hastily dismantled on the losing end of World War II. Family photos and other damning materials are burned or otherwise destroyed, and a precious few items are being packed away for a speedy getaway from the encroaching Allies. For teenager Saskia Rosendahl, the eldest of the family’s five children, it’s an inexplicable scene, the messy collapse of a no-doubt meticulously ordered home, but as a child, she has to accept it and adapt, just as she and her four siblings have adapted for years. When her parents are arrested, Rosendahl is oblivious to their atrocities—though she’s been imprinted by their prejudices—and the desperate journey she leads with her young sister and brothers becomes a terrible awakening she shares with a nation.
Based on the second story in Rachel Seiffert’s triptych novel The Dark Room, Lore ventures delicately into dicey territory—on the list of people the Nazis victimized, their descendents don’t rank terribly high. But Shortland, an Australian director who launched Abbie Cornish’s career with 2004’s Somersault, handles her main character’s coming of age with sensitivity and perspective, mindful of the fact that children are essentially innocent. When Rosendahl’s parents are taken away, she and her siblings—a sister (Nele Trebs), twin boys, and a baby—have to travel 500 miles across the German countryside to their grandmother’s house in Hamburg. Along the way, she meets a like-aged Jewish boy (Kai Malina) who helps them out, though their alliance sometimes becomes tenuous.
Shot with a detail-oriented expressiveness that occasionally edges into overly precious imagery, Lore excels mostly as a survival film, as Rosendahl barters jewelry and trinkets for whatever food and favors she can collect along the way. She’s met with generosity on some occasions, hostility and suspicion on others, but the overall impression is of a shattered country trying to come to terms with the horrors perpetuated in its name. In that sense, it’s a coming-of-age story for more than just its heroine. If nothing else, Shortland gives Rosendahl a star-making platform on par with Cornish’s in Somersault: She’s a magnetic screen presence who subtly conveys not only the struggle and guilt inherent to her situation, but also a residue of hate that’s carried over from her parents. The actor, like her character, shoulders a heavy burden.