02/08/2013 09:04 am ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

Movie Review: Lore


Her name is Lore (pronounced like Laura) and, from all appearances, she's your typical petulant 14-year-old, focused on herself, with little time for her gaggle of siblings or her parents.

But then reality sets in: Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is an adolescent in 1945 Germany. The war is coming to an end and the American and Russian occupations are beginning. Which means that both of her parents - her SS officer father and her similarly connected mother -- are about to be arrested.

Cate Shortland's Lore turns into a dark coming-of-age journey. Even as Americans arrive and her countrymen are forced to fend for themselves as the old rules disintegrate, Lore must shepherd her four siblings across the country, from their home in the south of Germany to Hamburg to her grandmother's home. It's a journey fraught with danger, including the threat of starvation and illness.

Lore is stolid and angry, unhappy at the responsibility but unwilling to shirk it. Her brothers and sister make her angry because they don't seem to understand how serious this is. They're just kids and so, when they can't actually see the threat, they revert to childish pursuits.

Lore, however, understands -- or thinks she understands -- what she's up against. She quickly realizes that other Germans aren't going to cut her and her band any slack just because they're kids. If anything, these youngsters are seen either as a burden or as potential prey.

Her only ally turns out to be Thomas (Kai Malina), who at first trails them, then joins them, then ends up leading them. He's a good-looking teen, a little older than Lore, stirring feelings in the young woman that she doesn't quite understand.

It's lust, of course -- the blossoming of a young female libido. But that longing is starkly at odds with something else: the fact that Thomas has a number tattooed on his arm and carries identification papers that include a sewn yellow star. He is a Jew, apparently escaped from one of the concentration camps.

So Lore takes an immediate dislike to him, even as she is drawn to him physically. She's spent all of her life having anti-Semitism inculcated into her -- and has further hatred for Jews when photographs of corpses at Auschwitz and elsewhere begin to surface. Suddenly, the reviled Jews are not just seen as a plague on society -- they have become a source of national shame through their very victimhood. Lore and other Germans she encounters try to deny the validity of the photos, but in the age before Photoshop, photographs were considered almost absolute proof and you had to believe your eyes.

Shortland's film has an occasionally detached, whispery quality, as the camera focuses on the nature around Lore and her group. These Malick-like moments take us out of the story, for better or worse, depending on your point of view.

Are they meant to contrast the unending power and beauty of nature with the squalid efforts and presence of man? Are they meant to humanize Lore by showing her connection to the larger world -- or to show her disconnection to her reality because she's focused on this stuff?

It's hard to say and those moments tend to slow things down. Or perhaps they're meant to provide something that will distance us, if only for a moment, from the ugly reality of Lore's life at that instant.

Rosendahl is a stunning young actress who does a lot with a little. Her face alternately set in a scowl or a look of fear (and occasionally, confusion), Rosendahl shows us an unformed soul - a teen at an age when she assumes she understands the world, just as it is turned inside out. She captures the sense of someone drawing upon reserves of strength heretofore unrealized.

Like Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, though with more feeling and less chilly remoteness, this film examines certain ugly aspects of the German national character without pointing fingers or assigning blame. Instead, Lore looks at people in high-stress situations, particularly a girl who may or may not be able to summon the character to survive in a way she can live with afterward.

Find more reviews, interviews and commentary on my website.