At the end of an all-too-brief encounter with Cate Shortland last fall, I couldn’t help but ask the Aussie director whether the experience of her latest film “Lore” had left her reenergized to make another, relieved when after she gave careful consideration to each question before it, she didn’t hesitate in saying yes.
There was a time when she wasn’t so sure. In the afterglow of her feature debut “Somersault,” a delicate coming-of-age story that was never intended to reach the outsized proportions that it did – winning a staggering 13 out of 15 Australian Academy Awards on its home turf and introducing the virtually unknown Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington to the rest of the world – Shortland was thrust into a position other filmmakers would surely envy. However, she didn’t head to Hollywood, despite the offers that came her way, nor did she return to Australia to capitalize on her newfound status as one of the country’s most promising filmmakers. Instead, Shortland followed her husband, director Tony Kravitz, to South Africa, where he was plotting a film of his own, started a family, and began working for a non-governmental organization.
“The years I’ve had living in Africa have given me such a huge depth of experience and I was so fearful at times,” Shortland said. “I’ve seen such beauty and humanity and pain, so it just allowed me a bigger memory bank.”
Although Shortland appears reluctant to say much more, it’s clear from “Lore,” the experiences she’s had in the eight years since her first film have resulted in an even richer second film. An adaptation of a story in Rachel Seiffert’s Holocaust triptych “The Dark Room,” “Lore” follows the young woman of the title (Saskia Rosendahl) as she corrals her siblings at the end of World War II to find safety at her grandmother’s house, but what makes the film so unique is the fact that unlike most narratives about survival in the era of the Third Reich, Lore is the daughter of Nazis. As such, the greatest villain in the film isn’t the soldiers the children must elude or the unforgiving terrain that threatens to swallow them whole, but of the ideology that’s seemingly unshakeable for a group of kids too young to understand what they’ve been brought up to believe.
Shortland hasn’t lost the gift to bring audiences within a breath of her characters, nor her eye for talent – Rosendahl is startling as the embattled leader of her three brothers and sister who has to compete with the memory of their mother and father as she’s questioning her memories of everything, confused even further when she begins to warm to a Jewish refugee (Kai Malina) who may hold the key to the family’s safe travels. The result is a film that is not easily forgotten and Shortland shared how she changed her plans to make the film, adding to the long lineage of films to tackle the Holocaust, and what the real-life family thought of her work.
How did you get interested in this story?
I was terrified of the perspective of making a film about the children of perpetrators and I think that’s what drew me to it. It was massively challenging on every level and I didn’t just want to make a film about a relationship, I wanted to make a film about a relationship far bigger in a more profound situation.
Lore is a similar age to Abbie Cornish’s Heidi in “Somersault” – is there something about that age that’s interesting to you?
It was coincidence with this film because the book, “The Dark Room” is three novellas – one is before the war and during the war, one is just after the war, this one, and then the last one is contemporary and all three stories share one theme, which is how the Holocaust has impacted on the German psyche and they all have photography through them. That’s why it’s called “The Dark Room.” And I actually wanted to make the last novella, which was about a 30-something-year-old guy and the producer said, “No, you’ve got to make this, which is ‘Lore,’ because it’s the least redemptive. It’s the one where you have to really struggle with the material. It’s the most ambiguous, it’s the most challenging. And I’m so glad they pushed me because they were right.
When there’s been a certain narrative that’s been established in regards to films about the Holocaust, is that something you build on or something that pushes you towards a different direction?
I had to look at what had been made before and wonder what are we adding to it, in terms of this huge reservoir of films that are being made around this era. The only way I could look at it was to go to the really frightening heart of it and say what does it mean when you wake up and discover that your father is a mass murderer? Where you do go from there? And what does that teach us as people that think we know that history? What it has done for me is given me a far greater understanding of something that I thought I knew about. I had a very didactic idea of Germany and after making this film, I can’t generalize about people’s reaction to the Holocaust or how they’ve dealt with it.
You had to do massive amounts of research for it – is it a process of finding it, internalizing it then discarding it? One of the things I appreciated most was how you were able to find the story in this without…
…without steeping it in nostalgia.
Yeah. There’s the burnt photographs here and there that speak to what happened, but…
The retrospective kind of idea about history we all have. We tried to make it really immediate. To do that, you have to take your judgment out and that was difficult. But what the research did was I spent many weeks and months in Berlin and often I’d be on my own. Sometimes I’d have my baby daughter with me. And I got really, really angry. I got so fucking angry that this happened and then we’d do workshops. We did workshops with Hitler youth.
The great person that was really influential was this woman I saw in a documentary who spoke about how much she loved Bund Deutscher Mädel [the League of German Maidens] and loved the singing and loved the nature and then she said, it all changed when she was in her apartment. She was about 12 or 13 and she heard a noise in the corridor and she came out and an old Jewish lady was being kicked down the stairs and was bloodied. It was incredibly distressing, and the girl thought “Well, she’s Jewish, she must’ve done something to deserve that.” Then they left and the little girl ran into the backyard and she threw up.
That was the character that Saskia and I really thought about for Lore. It was like she had lost her father when Hitler died. The mother loved Hitler more than she loved her husband. Then two things are happening – the indoctrination is suffocating your empathy and your humanity. Then she meets Thomas and she sees her country falling apart around her and the humanity starts to grow.
As a production, the film traveled the same path as the children did in real life. Did that help inform the experience of making it?
It did. We had the most amazing time on this film. Also, one of the also incredible things is my husband’s family are German Jews and we used his family photographs in Thomas’ wallet, so the film is also really intimate to me about my husband’s survival, his family’s survival. We just showed the film in Hamburg and Liesl, Lore’s little sister, was on stage with us, and then we showed the film in London and Lore was on stage with us, so I think for them, it’s been really, really cathartic because they’ve had massive shame and have had to deal with this terrible history their whole lives and to suddenly be on stage and I think not to be judged, people understand they were kids. The beautiful thing I heard recently is Elie Weisel was talking about the children of perpetrators and he said the children of murderers are not murderers. They are children.
Were you nervous about showing it to the real-life family?
Oh yeah. I was very nervous because they’re a very private family. I didn’t want them to be hurt by it because I really appreciate that they were kids, that they’ve had immense pain and suffering over crimes that their parents committed, that they didn’t commit. It’s taught me a lot about judging because I’m a judgmental person.
Well, we all are.
We all are. I’m very judgmental. I try not to be.
“Lore” opens at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Angelika in New York on and the Royal Theatre, the Encino Town Center 5, the Pasadena Playhouse 7 and the Irvine Westpark 8 in Los Angeles on February 8th. It will expand throughout the country in the weeks to follow. A full list of theaters and dates can be found here.