Arts and Culture

In ‘Lore,’ a shattering rendezvous with reality

(L-R) Liesel (Nele Trebs), Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), Jürgen (Mika Seidel) and Günther (André Frid) in Lore. (Music Box Films)
(L-R) Liesel (Nele Trebs), Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), Jürgen (Mika Seidel) and Günther (André Frid) in Lore. (Music Box Films)

Set during the fall of Germany in April 1945, Cate Shortland’s “Lore” evokes and filters the moral weight of history through a single adolescent girl.

Experiential rather than informational, subjective without being reductive, the German-language film is a parable of the end of innocence —the naive innocence of girlhood intertwined with the willful self-denial of the complicit German masses.

A brilliantly impressionistic and sensuous study of a Hitler follower shepherding her four younger siblings 500 miles to refuge with a relative, “Lore” is the first must-see movie of the year.

“Lore,” an Australian-German production that was Australia’s submission for the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film, opens Friday, April 5 at the Loft Cinema.

For 14-year-old Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), the opening moments of the film suggest the first dim awakenings from a dream. Her SS father has returned home, but something isn’t quite right. Lore can’t grasp what’s going on as the family collects the silver, burns files and piles into a truck. Suddenly, the off-screen sound of a gunshot — her

father killing the family dog — cleaves Lore’s world into “before” and “after.”

We discern that the parents were more devoted to the Fuhrer than to their children. Now, stunned by the demise of the thousand-year Reich, they can barely focus on anything but their own plight.

In short order, Lore is left with a little cash, a few pieces of jewelry and instructions to take the other children (including an infant) to her aunt’s faraway house. Any hesitation we may feel about empathizing with the blonde daughter of war criminals is further complicated by the hints we get of her sheltered upbringing and simple, unquestioning subscription to the Nazi doctrine.

“Lore,” adapted from Rachel Seiffert’s novel, “The Dark Room,” neither explains nor excuses its protagonist’s Hitler Youth- instilled attitude.

Assuming the audience will bring a knowledge of the Third Reich and the Holocaust, Shortland and co-screenwriter Robin Mukherjee concentrate on immersing us in Lore’s impossible task, and encouraging us to empathize with her exceedingly gradual, confusing and painful process of confronting horrible truths. “Lore” is a deeply moral film, make no mistake, but rather than nervously asserting its bona fides it expects that moviegoers have a developed sense of right and wrong.

Consequently, much of the movie’s pleasure derives from the way in which details — clues, if you will — are briefly presented and occasionally withheld. As in most coming-of-age stories, the audience gets things that are beyond the main character’s level of experience and understanding.

That’s the case with a dark young man named Thomas, an enigmatic survivor of the camps who latches onto Lore’s bedraggled caravan. As the days pass, though, the film plants a seed that he may not be Jewish but has cannily deduced that a Jewish ID is the best way to navigate postwar Germany.

As for the mystery regarding an Australian filmmaker’s attraction to this subject matter, Shortland’s debut feature, “Somersault,” was also a coming-of-age saga about a teenage girl.

More revealing, though, is an anecdote that her South African-born husband, filmmaker Tony Krawitz — whose maternal grandparents fled Berlin in 1935 — tells about their meeting at a party in their early 20s where they connected over a common interest in history and fascism.

It’s a measure of Shortland’s gift that the climactic moment when Lore rejects her childhood of deception is anything but cathartic. To this 14-year-old non-Jew, pretending that one could live happily ever after the Holocaust is inconceivable.

Michael Fox is a film critic in San Francisco.