Australian writer-director Cate Shortland is fascinated with teenage girls on the precipice of adulthood. They were the subject of her 2004 debut, Somersault, and they're also the focus of her latest effort, Lore, which is screening at the Wisconsin Film Festival. But this time, Shortland adds the bracing reality of political exigencies to a social and sexual coming-of-age story.
In Germany at the end of World War II, as Russian and American occupying forces flood into the country, many people retreat to the margins to escape detection and capture. A young teen nicknamed Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) awakens to the sounds of her mother (Ursina Lardi) and father (Hans-Jochen Wagner) talking in an agitated hush. A member of the SS, Lore's father fears for the family's safety, so they quickly pack to leave for the countryside that night. Before they go, he shoots the family's dog so there will be one less mouth to feed. He quickly returns to what's left of the German troops while Lore's mother tries to hang on. Facing starvation, she puts her remaining cash and wedding band in Lore's hand, instructing the girl to take her four younger siblings to their grandmother's house some 500 miles away. When she departs for an internment camp, the five children - one an infant - are on their own.
Thrust into a grown-up role, Lore understands that she will probably never see her parents again. It takes all her strength and ingenuity to cope once she learns that the trains are no longer running to the countryside. Setting out on foot, the children are eventually befriended by Thomas (Kai Malina), a mysterious refugee bearing papers that identify him as Jewish. Brought up in the Hitler Youth, Lore despises Thomas on principle, though the difficulties of the journey push her into a strange dance of hate, appreciation and budding sexual curiosity.
Filled with short bursts of nature shots and facial close-ups, Lore is as lovely and fragmented as its protagonist. This Nazi child begins to see life's complexities as her simplistic, Manichean worldview is gradually stripped away. Through a series of incidents, she discovers that not all Jews are evil and not all Germans are good. It's a harsh truth learned through harsh circumstances.
Although some moments push the story a bit beyond believability, Shortland has created something remarkable by forcing us to sympathize with a would-be Aryan princess.