The protagonist of “Lore,” a powerful and haunting drama set in Germany immediately after the country’s defeat in World War II, is a teenage girl. Subtly played by Saskia Rosendahl, Lore (pronounced “Laura”) is just old enough to have learned to fear and hate Jews. It’s a sick lesson imparted to her by her Nazi parents (Hans-Jochen Wagner and Ursina Lardi) who, as the film gets underway, are being taken into custody by Allied troops.
This leaves Lore the rest of the film to begin to unlearn that lesson, and maybe to pick up a few new ones, as she and her four younger siblings, who are still relatively untainted by anti-Semitism, make their way through the Black Forest to a relative’s house near Hamburg. The carved-up countryside they travel through — a land divided into sections controlled by the Americans, the British, the Russians and the French — resembles the setting of a latter-day Brothers Grimm tale. Death and moral ambiguity litter the roadside. As Lore’s mother puts it while warning her daughter to avoid soldiers, “They kill all the children.”
It’s a sad, scary and slightly surreal place for anyone to be, let alone a child whose world has been defined by war and propaganda.
Adapted by Australian director Cate Shortland and co-writer Robin Mukherjee from Rachel Seiffert’s 2001 novel “The Dark Room,” “Lore” moves with a deliberate pace, marked less by dramatic incident than by a slowly quickening, ominous mood. The quickening increases significantly when Lore and her brood encounter a mysterious young man named Thomas (Kai Malina). A fellow refugee, Thomas becomes their protector and benefactor when they are all stopped by American troops, telling the soldiers that he is Lore’s brother and that they are traveling together.
It is his yellow star, marked “Jude” (Jew), that allows him safe passage.
There is an immediate sexual attraction between Thomas and Lore but also a deep mistrust, even loathing, given that these two young people come from backgrounds of such enmity. But they need each other: Lore needs Thomas to deflect attention from her group and Thomas needs Lore’s baby brother to cadge food from sympathetic strangers.
Over time, their relationship becomes more complex, even contradictory. “Lore” is not a love story, nor the story of a friendship. Rather, it’s a story of healing and of how breaking, sometimes painfully, is often necessary before that process can begin.
As demonstrated by Shortland’s assured first feature, “Somersault,” the filmmaker has a sensibility keenly attuned to the condition of female adolescence. Under normal circumstances, the teenage Lore’s world would be one characterized by the constant discovery of new desires, self-doubts and even occasional dread. That this story is set in a world turned upside down and that it concerns a character ripped away from every certainty she ever knew — even the false ones — only makes it more poignant.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema, AMC Loews Shirlington and Cinema Arts Theatre. Contains obscenity, nudity, sensuality, violence and disturbing images and thematic material. In German and some English with English subtitles. 108 minutes.