Interview: Director Cate Shortland explores what happens to the children of perpetrators in 'Lore'
The haunting film follows five children of imprisoned Nazis as they make their way across war-torn Germany on their own
As the Allied forces sweep across Germany in the spring of 1945, a high-ranking SS officer and his Nazi wife are detained by the victors. The couple’s 14-year-old daughter, Lore (newcomer Saskia Rosendahl) must lead her four younger siblings on a harrowing journey across a devastated country to their grandmother’s house. When Lore meets a mysterious young refugee (Kai Malina of “The White Ribbon”), she must confront feelings of both hatred and desire. Despite her training and beliefs, will she be able to put her trust in the only person who can help her?
“Lore” was directed and co-written (with Robin Mukherjee) by Cate Shortland, based on the book “The Dark Room” by Rachel Seiffert. Shortland’s previous feature, “Somersault,” swept the Australian Film Institute Awards and made stars out of Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington. Her powerful and unique new German-language film has been taking the festival circuit by storm and is currently playing in select U.S. cities. I spoke to Shortland by phone.
MSN Movies: I knew a lot of children of Holocaust survivors when I was growing up but I was always fascinated by the children of Nazis as well. There seemed to be some parallels between the two groups. Was that what drew you to this story?
Cate Shortland: Like most people, I’ve often thought about the victims and their families, but I think as I got older I did start thinking more about the perpetrators and the effect their actions had on their family members. I read a great book about Albert Speer and his family and one about the commandant of Treblinka. I think the similarities between children of Holocaust survivors and children of Nazi perpetrators is that both groups talk about a great silence in the family. I think the reasons for that silence are very different—one is about trauma and one is often about denial and anger. When children of high-ranking Nazis have gotten their parents to talk to them, the parents have often said that many of their actions were misconstrued, that they were just doing their job, and so on. There did not seem to be a lot of space in those conversations for any real dialogue.
This is such a fascinating story, and I know it’s based on real events. Did you get any flack from people in Germany or the German film industry for taking it on? “How dare this Australian woman come here and make this film about our history?”
You know, on the whole, I think Germans are very polite! I think if there were any misgivings about that, nobody said anything to me. At one point we tried to do some funding in Austria, and I found it interesting that Austrians seemed to have the most problems with the film. But I think in Germany they’re used to films like “The Reader” and “Schindler’s List” and many others—they’re very used to international films about their history during the war.
How was the film received in Germany?
We had a great critical response there. But it’s still a difficult subject. I was in Brussels last week showing the film and we had a very interesting Q&A after the screening. I was just about to leave the cinema when a young German man came up to me and he was really angry. It was good for me to see that, actually, the different reactions that night from the French-speaking audience compared to this young German.
Did he explain why he was angry?
He was angry because he felt that the film was saying negative things about young Germans. I tried to talk to him about it, even quoting Elie Wiesel’s comment that “the children of murderers are not murderers, they’re children.”
How hard was the language barrier when you were making this film? I assume you’re not fluent in German?
I’ve taken some courses but I’m really very bad. But my partner’s family was originally from Germany. They left in 1937 as Jewish refugees. So I kind of had an understanding of the culture and I’ve traveled to Germany many times. But while I was making this film it was the nuances of the language that really terrified me. I’d wake up at 4 in the morning and start worrying about little things, like the actors’ intonation, it was scary! But we had this amazing dramaturg who was on set every day so she used to translate for the little kids. A lot of the adults spoke English and so did my lead, Saskia Rosendahl, so I could speak to them directly.
I’ve talked with some directors who’ve made films in other languages who said that it was kind of liberating in a way.
It’s true! The great thing was that I eventually stopped worrying about the lines and really started to look at how the performances were impacting the other characters. You start looking for all these messages and clues almost as if you’re watching English speakers acting through a plate-glass window! You can’t hear what they’re saying, exactly, but you can definitely see what they’re talking about or if the scene’s working emotionally. So in a way, making this film in German has taught me a lot about directing.
The cast is so exquisite, especially Saskia Rosendahl. Was it hard to find her and the other children?
Saskia was the last person we cast. We’d actually cast the part of Lore and then about a week into rehearsals we discovered she was actually younger than she said she was so we had to recast which was a huge deal. We’d already looked at about 300 girls all over Germany. Then the casting director showed me a photo of Saskia and told me I had rejected her three months earlier for being too “perfect” but that she wanted to bring her back. So she did, and I was amazed by her talent—she is just wonderful.
Did you have to grapple with the fact that in a way you are humanizing these characters, many of whom are card-carrying Nazis with beliefs that are quite abhorrent?
Yes, it was really difficult. What I thought from the very beginning was that we could never ask for sympathy—we just had to let the actions of the characters speak and leave a lot of space for the audience to interpret what they’re seeing. We couldn’t really try to sway the audience one way or the other, we didn’t want to tell them what to feel. I think audiences are often quite sympathetic to Lore and then they sort of get a slap in the face when she turns around and spouts this horrible anti-Semitic diatribe. But that’s the reality, that’s what the character is thinking at that time even though earlier she seems like this very pure young girl. For me that’s one of the huge contradictions of National Socialism—their fascination with perfection and beauty but with all those ugly ideas just under the surface.
It’s interesting how we bring our own stuff to those moments. Even when Lore revealed her Nazi beliefs, I just saw her as a victim. That moment made me feel sorry for her.
(Laughs.) You’re very open-minded! But we do see her change in the film as she deals with her situation.
“Lore” is currently playing in select cities.