I will never forget my roundtable interview with Thomas Kretschmann more than a decade ago in support of the Roman Polanski film The Pianist. Kretschmann, who played Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, the SS officer who offered aid to Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a Polish Jew and superb pianist hiding in the Warsaw ghetto toward the end of World War II, spoke quite plainly of the German citizenry’s acceptance of guilt and responsibility for the war and the Holocaust.
Efforts were made (and continue) to study and commemorate the past misdeeds, to make sure that such tragic events never happen again. It was a startling claim on many levels, but a genuine sign of the possibility to move beyond dark periods in human history.
But, when and where do such instances begin? That seems to be the question posed in Lore, the new release from Cate Shortland, which made the rounds last year during the festival season and was Australia’s official entry to the Best Foreign Language Film for the 85th Academy Awards of 2013.
The film tracks Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), the eldest of five children, the offspring of staunch Nazi supporters, who seeks to protect her siblings and stay one step ahead of the Allied troops at the end of the war. Soon after the suicide of Hitler, Lore’s family finds itself in a precarious position, similar in fact to that of Jewish families facing the onslaught of the Nazi march across Europe.
With little time and few options, Lore and the others must pack only what they can carry (bundling their silver and jewelry in pillowcases for safekeeping) and trek from farm to farm for food and a night or two of shelter from owners who take them in begrudgingly.
Despite sensing that her parents’ relationship was not as secure and cohesive as she might have hoped, Lore steadfastly holds onto her bedrock belief in Nazi superiority, until confronted along the road by the mysterious presence of Thomas (Kai-Peter Malina), a near-silent young man, obviously Jewish, who falls in with Lore and her siblings and becomes a caretaker of sorts.
First and foremost when she looks at Thomas, Lore sees a Jew, the weak and inferior person she was taught to see, but he is also a boy, just a few years older than her (each of them struggle in the face of their racing hormones) and, more perplexing still, Thomas steps in for no reason to offer assistance with her younger siblings.
He secures food for her infant brother, plays with her twin brothers who are desperate for attention and respite from the troubles and hardships of their journey. Even her sister Liesel (Nele Trebs), just a year or two younger, senses a kinship with Thomas that is vital and necessary to keep the family together.
Named for the eldest sister, the film’s tensions play out in Lore’s psyche as she attempts to reconcile her feelings for Thomas with the doctrine that her parents nurtured her with, and Rosendahl bears the burden with equal parts grace and grit. Her journey is representative of that of the German people, the ongoing legacy that Kretschmann addressed, but in Lore’s case we are witnessing the earliest example of the transformation, when there was little or no perspective to ease into the process.
World War II stories have dominated the screens over the last few years, and mainly the focus has been on the Jewish experience, the struggle to survive in the ghettoes or the concentration camps, to emerge and possibly reclaim some sense of self, personhood (as a Jew) or even statehood at any cost. In many key ways, I believe certain groups within the American audience are intrigued by these uplifting tales and seek to draw parallels between the Holocaust and our own dark and peculiar historic institutions, but it is the wartime switch, the changing of roles that plays out in Lore, that separates the situations, rendering them far less comparable. What Lore, as a character, experiences has no direct correlation here.
While so much of her attention is focused on her conflicting feelings about Thomas and what she has been taught about Jews, Lore is forced to live, day-to-day, like the Jews, fearful of the Nazis on their trail, eager to hunt, subjugate and kill them (although it was truly only Lore’s parents who were hunted and only then as war criminals). And it is through this twist of conscience that Lore, and Germany as a whole, could ever be set free. (Opens Friday at The Esquire) Grade: A-
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