Friday, February 8, 2013

Review: "Lore"

Director: Cate Shortland
Runtime: 109 minutes

Lore is only the second film from Australian director Cate Shortland, whose last film - Sommersault - was released in 2004. However, Shortland's sophomore effort is more than just a welcome return. It fulfills the promise of her debut so fully that it should immediately establish her as one of the most compelling new voices in world cinema. By melding historical and social commentary with poetic visuals, Shortland enables Lore to stand out among one of film's most crowded genre categories: WWII dramas. The year is young, yet Lore is a promising way to kick-off the year in terms of foreign imports.

Adapted from Rachel Seiffert's novel (which contains three separate stories), Lore examines the fallout after Hitler's death and the collapse of the Nazi regime. In particular, it focuses on the titular Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), a teenager separated from her parents (both with Nazi ties of some sort), and left to care for her four siblings. As she leads her family on a lengthy journey to her grandmother's house, she must face both foreign occupation, and the crushing realization that the all of the glory and promise of the Third Reich (and its ideals) have been brought crashing down.

The set-up is relatively unique, in that is asks us to become invested in characters who have been brought up thinking that Jews are evil, and that Hitler is a great and generous leader. Yet because the characters are younger, they remain sympathetic, because of their youth and lack of experience. This is more true, however, of Lore's siblings, considering just how young they are. Lore herself isn't old, but she's old enough to make the decision to believe Nazi propaganda and really mean it. As such, she often says and does things that are less than kind. When she discovers that a young man named Thomas (Kai Malina), who follows them for part of their journey, is Jewish, she holds onto the fact so that she can use it to demean him later. 

Yet because Lore is the most "corrupted" of the children at the center of the story, she also has the most capacity for change, which is what anchors this poetically beautiful, abstractly put-together film. Lore's journey is the bulk of the story, and yet Shortland finds ways to beautifully weave in the larger ramifications of the war's end. Once Lore and her siblings reach a bombed-out town, the film seques into a haunting mini-montage of the other people in the town, showing how different generations are coping now that their world has been turned upside down. It's an inspired moment that broadens the film's scope just enough before it plunges back into Lore's internal and external transformation.

And as the titular Lore, newcomer Rosendahl is excellent. Both in dialogue or through facial expressions, the young actress both reveals different sides of Lore's personality and demonstrates her struggle to process revelations from the War. Most telling is when an older woman rants about pictures of bodies in concentration camps, and claims that they've all been staged by the Americans. Lore doesn't contradict her, but the look in her eyes shows that even though she'd like to believe it, she can't. Each of Lore's encounters reveal something about her, along with something about older generations. This keeps the film feeling eventful, even as it indulges in arty techniques like landscape shots and images of small animals and plants. 

Shortland's visual approach to the story, filled with camera-work and framing that feels like a combination of The Tree of Life and The King's Speech, enriches, rather than cheapens, the material. For as much of Lore takes place in the forest, the settings never feel redundant or repetitive. The balance between the internal and external journey is excellent, and repeatedly achieves a quiet, nuanced impact. Despite the tricky themes and issues in the story, Shortland and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw communicate them effortlessly through visuals, turning the spare script into a subtle wonder on screen. There are no political diatribes or lengthy speeches about ideals, which is for the best considering that Lore doesn't need any. 

In a film of such elegance, however, there is one unfortunate standout: Max Richter's score. While quite strong at the very beginning and end of the film, Richter's music in most of the first act often comes on far too strong. It's good in its own right, yet feels like it belongs in a much different WWII drama. The direction and the camera-work often achieve desired emotional impact, and the score sometimes undercuts them by flooding the screen with over-the-top foreshadowing. 

This one issue aside, however, Lore is one of the most impressive WWII-centric tales to come around in a long time. The subject matter (the generation known as "Hitler's children"), and lyrical execution elevate the film in the most unexpected ways. Lore doesn't sugar-coat its subject matter, so much as it communicates them in an abstract and poetic manner. Through its images, the film is able to translate an unfathomable struggle - overcoming a life and mindset filled with lies - into a vision of rarefied beauty and harrowing elegance.

Grade: B+/A-

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