Opening today at the Lincoln Plaza in New York today is a most unusual film titled “Lore”. The lore in question is not a reference to folk tales but the nickname of Hannelore, a sixteen-year-old German girl who is charged with the responsibility of leading her younger sister, even younger twin brothers, and baby brother from the Black Forest to Hamburg in the months before the end of World War Two where they will be housed by their grandmother until being reunited with their parents.
What makes the film unusual is the openly pro-Nazi sympathies of the parents and of Lore herself. When the film begins, Mutti (German for “mom”) and Vati (“dad” is an SS officer) are gathering up the family’s belongings in their spacious Berlin apartment for a trip in an army truck he has commandeered. Their destination: a farm in the Black Forest where they will try to survive the certain collapse of the Third Reich. The camera pans in to a bookshelf in the apartment where a book with a title like “The Diagnosis of Abnormal Human Specimens” sticks out like a sore thumb. You cannot help but suspect that Mutti was an aide to Josef Mengele. Even more of a fanatic than Vati, she accuses him of cowardice and shrieks that the Nazi army will beat back the barbarians at the gate as if a member of the cast in “Downfall”.
Not long after the family reaches its destination, the war comes to an end and Vati turns himself in to the victorious American army. (He is shrewd enough to stay away from the Russians.) And not long after that Mutti turns herself in as well, assuring her children that she will only be in a camp rather than a prison.
Lore is forced to take over for her parents and lead the children through the hills, back roads, and small farming towns that lie between them and the railway station where they can catch a train to Hamburg. With very little money and only a few family heirlooms to trade for food, they are obviously skating on thin ice. After a week on the road, they look like what they are: poor and hungry people forced to migrate under wartime conditions. No longer the children of the Master Race, they have much more in common with the hundreds of thousands forced to leave Syria. Except that they remain sympathetic to the Third Reich and regard the allies as dangerous scum.
The film is a “road” movie having something in common with “The Road”, a film based on the Cormac McCarthy novel with Viggo Mortenson trying to find a safe haven for himself and his son. You sit on the edge of your seat wondering what’s the next calamity awaiting our plucky heroes and heroines.
But even more it is very much in the tradition of “Gone With the Wind”, another tale of a reactionary class trying to get back on its feet after a war leaves them homeless and poverty-stricken. When Lore picks potatoes from the soil for their infrequent meals, you cannot help but be reminded of Scarlett O’Hara doing the same thing with turnips, vowing: “As God is my witness, I will never be hungry again”.
Unlike O’Hara who remained a reactionary until the bitter end, Lore goes through a transformation in the film, largely through her exposure to a character named Tomas who is in his mid-20s and really quite a hunk. Unfortunately he is a Jew and forced to put up with Lore’s tirades. When she first meets up with him in a barn, she demands that he sleep on the other side of the hayloft.
However, Tomas is street wise and mature beyond his years. What’s more he takes an interest in the children and helps them navigate their way out of one rough spot after another. He is also attracted to Lore and takes every opportunity he can get to put his hand up her skirt. With her hormones raging, Lore is torn between letting him have his way and biting his hand off as a way of showing allegiance to the defunct Nazi project. She finally relents when it is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that their survival rests on his leadership. The untermensch becomes obermensch.
Cate Shortland, who is absolutely brilliant, directs the film. Don’t believe the hype about “Zero Dark Thirty”. If you want to see a female director working her magic on morally questionable material, Shortland has her beat to hell. This is a film that has striking images throughout, tremendous performances, and a powerful screenplay co-written by the director and Robin Mukherjee, who has mostly worked in British television.
At the press screening, the publicist was handing out copies of “The Dark Room”, a novel written by Rachel Seiffert in 2001 upon which the film is based. While I read very little fiction nowadays, I was curious to see how the two compared. The novel has three parts involving Germans who were touched by World War Two in one way or another. The first part, titled “Helmut”, recounts the misery of a congenitally disabled photographer’s assistant who becomes homeless during the bombing raids on Berlin at the end of the war. The last part is titled “Micha”, which is short for Michael, a schoolteacher whose grandfather was in the Waffen SS and who travels to Byelorussia in 1998 to inquire about the man’s deeds there. Was he a killer?
It was most interesting to see how Shortland transformed Seiffert’s prose. In the middle section, titled “Lore”, Tomas is an older and rather unattractive man who never tries to put the make on Lore. Furthermore, his Jewishness never comes up as an issue with her. Since there is no conflict, the story lacks the drama of the film. More to the point, the film would risk being unpalatable to today’s audiences if Lore did not become “enlightened” about Nazi evil. While this satisfies Aristotelian dictums about the need for catharsis, it is not really faithful to Seiffert’s intentions.
She has little interest in saying mea culpa over Nazi crimes. When Micha finally lands an interview with an elderly man who was in town under Nazi rule, he fully expects the old man to have painful memories of being tortured, losing family members, etc. It turns out that the man was a Nazi collaborator only too happy to shoot Jews whenever asked. His take on killing Jews? An Eichmannesque: “Someone else was responsible”.
Despite being homeless and impoverished, Helmut manages to have salvaged the cameras and film from his workplace and spends his days photographing Berlin during its Götterdämmerung. One day he spots something happening on the street that cries out for preservation, the Nazis are rounding up a bunch of Roma to send to the death camps. What is his interest in filming this scene? Dramatic evidence of Nazi barbarism? Not really.
The gypsies are divided and loaded into the trucks. They shout back at the men in uniform, gold teeth bared. Children cry on their mothers’ hips and hide beneath their wide, bright skirts. Girls bite the soldiers’ hands as they pull the jewels from their ears and hair. Men kick those who kick them and are kicked again. Women push away the hands which push them, and one runs but doesn’t get far and is soon unconscious and in the truck with the rest of her family.
Helmut is afraid, exhilarated. His hands sweat and shake. He clicks and winds and clicks again, photographing as quickly as the camera will allow: not quick enough. He reloads, curses his fingers, feeble and damp, fumbles and struggles with the focus.
In other words, Helmut is looking for a great photograph, not to document genocide. Indeed, one can only wonder if Rachel Seiffert has the same motivation in writing about wartime Germany, to tell a good story.
Of German descent but educated in Britain, Seiffert tried to explain her motivations to the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2001. When asked if she was a fan of Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust”, a book that condemned all Germans for being responsible for the Judeocide, she replied that she was much more influenced by Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland”, a book that argued—correctly, in my view—that ordinary Germans, in this case a bunch of cops, did everything they could to thwart orders from higher-up’s. The Globe and Mail reports:
What impressed her about Browning was that he allowed Nazis to speak through interviews and in the letters they had sent home during the war. “He emphasized that they were very ordinary people who weren’t driven by a particular hatred,” she explains. “He was much more interested in exploring group behaviour and what becomes clear is that killing was part of everyday life, but that doesn’t mean that people didn’t find it hard.”
In my view Seiffert is a very good novelist and Shortland is a very good director. What bothers me, however, is how such talented people can devote so much time and energy making art out of the lives of essentially worthless people.
(Lore also opens today in Los Angeles. Check local papers for details.)