Hitler Youths journey of devastating discovery in Lore

Set during the fall of Germany in April 1945, Cate Shortland’s extraordinary “Lore” evokes and filters the moral weight of history through an adolescent girl.

The German-language film is a parable of the end of innocence — the naive innocence of girlhood intertwined with the willful self-denial of the complicit German masses.

A brilliantly impressionistic and sensuous study of a Hitler follower shepherding her four younger siblings 500 miles to refuge with a relative, the experiential “Lore” is the first must-see movie of the year.

Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) leads her siblings on a 500-mile journey in postwar Germany. photo/courtesy of music box films

An Australian-German production, “Lore” opens March 1 in the Bay Area.

The film’s opening moments are intended to suggest the first dim awakenings from a dream for 14-year-old Lore (Saskia Rosendahl). Her SS father has returned to their comfortable home, but something isn’t quite right. Lore can’t grasp what’s going on as the family collects the silver, burns files and piles into a truck. Suddenly, the piercing off-screen sound of a gunshot — her father killing the family dog — cleaves Lore’s world into “before” and “after.”

We discern that the parents were more devoted to the Führer than to their children. Stunned by the demise of the Reich, they can barely focus on anything but their own plight.

In short order, Lore is left with a little cash, a few pieces of jewelry and instructions to take the other children, including an infant, to her aunt’s far-away house. Any hesitation we may feel about empathizing with the blonde daughter of war criminals is further complicated by the hints we get of her sheltered upbringing and simple, unquestioning subscription to the Nazi doctrine.

Lore is more ashamed about being confronted with her hungry brother’s theft of food, or at having to beg, than by the photographs posted of the heinous crimes her country (and father, though she doesn’t realize it yet) committed.

Adapted from Rachel Seiffert’s novel “The Dark Room,” “Lore” neither explains nor excuses its protagonist’s Hitler Youth–instilled attitude. Director Shortland and co-screenwriter Robin Mukherjee assume that the audience will bring a knowledge of the Third Reich and the Holocaust, and will see Lore in a broader context than the teen can see herself.

Therefore, the filmmakers can concentrate on immersing us in Lore’s impossible task and encouraging us to empathize with her exceedingly gradual, confusing and painful process of confronting horrible truths.

“Lore” is a deeply moral film, but rather than asserting its bona fides, it expects that moviegoers have a developed sense of right and wrong. Consequently, much of the movie’s pleasure derives from the way in which details — clues, if you will — are briefly presented and occasionally withheld.

As in most coming-of-age stories, the audience gets things that are beyond the main character’s level of experience and understanding.

That’s the case with a dark young man named Thomas, an enigmatic survivor of the camps who latches onto Lore’s bedraggled caravan. As the days pass, though, and the film plants a seed that he may not be Jewish but has cannily deduced that a Jewish ID is the best way to navigate postwar Germany, we realize we aren’t necessarily any clearer about his identity and agenda than Lore is.

It’s a measure of Shortland’s mature gift for nuanced insight that the moment when Lore rejects her childhood of deception is anything but cathartic. To this 14-year-old non-Jew, pretending that one could live happily ever after the Holocaust is inconceivable. 

“Lore” opens March 1 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco, the Shattuck in Berkeley and Camera 3 in San Jose. In German with English subtitles. (Not rated, 108 minutes)