Lore: German children abandoned in postwar Germany look for home
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Lore: German children abandoned in postwar Germany look for home

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

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Abandoned by their parents, Lore and her siblings cross a devastated land.

During the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman gave orders to evacuate the city of Atlanta and then burn it to the ground, a horrendous moment in history recreated in the classic 1939 film, “Gone with the Wind.” The townspeople appealed to the general, telling him that there were pregnant, sick, and old people there. In response, the fierce and determined Sherman simply responded that “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it, and those who brought war in this country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.” Most Americans see the victory of the Allied armies in World War II as a victory over tyranny, but what of those on the other side who suffered at the war’s end?

It is hard for us to feel great compassion for the Germans who were vanquished in a hard-fought war that stemmed the tide of fascism. Most Americans regard World War II as a just war. In “Lore,” an Australian, British, and German co-production, writer/director Cate Shortland turns the point of view away from what we are used to seeing in cinema – what the camp survivors, who were left homeless, often without family, had to endure. Instead, she looks squarely at the children of a high-ranking Nazi officer and his wife, who choose to leave their children behind and flee as the war ends and Allied forces sweep the Motherland. But what of the children? What responsibility must they bear? What is to be their fate?

In November, Israeli filmmaker Chanoch Ze’evi’s “Hitler’s Children” was screened at the Teaneck Film Festival. It is a documentary study of the children of many of Hitler’s top lieutenants (and was reviewed here on November 9.) What happened to those children? How did they deal with their legacy? Ze’evi asks the questions and the people he interviews tell of their disdain for their fathers, how they suffered, and how it took much time for them truly to comprehend the extent of their parents’ partnership with evil.

Cate Shortland draws on Rachel Seiffert’s “The Dark Room,” a novel with three stories, each told from the perspective of a young person trying to make sense of Nazi Germany. Her film presents the story of four young children, led by the eldest, 14-year-old Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), who set out on a terrifying journey across the devastated landscape in an effort to reach the safety of their grandmother’s home, more than 500 miles away. We are witness to brutal postwar conditions as the children make their way across forests, back roads, and countryside, seeking food and shelter in a precarious environment where uneasy townspeople eye them with suspicion. As they journey, they see photographs posted by the Americans and Russians showing the horrors the Nazis had engineered. At first, there is total disbelief. Clearly this is Allied propaganda! But just as the German nation begins to understand the reality and ramifications of Nazi actions, so do the children struggle to understand the complicity of their parents.

“Lore” is a study in trauma, the anguish of a nation trying to come to grips with its collusion in a disastrous war and a policy of genocide and mass murder. These four children, whose father was a hero just a few years earlier, now must come to grips with what had taken place under his watch and with both of their parents’ active participation. Lore and her siblings grew up trusting their parents and believing in their abhorrent Nazi ideologies. In this story, Shortland wanted us to understand Lore, “her lack of empathy, her romantic determination to keep believing, even when Germany was suffering defeat.” This might be difficult for us to conceive, but Shortland does an impressive job introducing us to the maturation of this gregarious and thoughtful young woman, who has been raised always to obey, never to question. Even as Lore gains the protection of Thomas (Kai Malina), a man who appears to be a Jewish survivor of the concentration camps, the epitome of everything that she has been taught to hate, she still holds onto her prejudicial beliefs. What will change her?

Cate Shortland is an Australian who has spent a great deal of time in Germany and in post-apartheid South Africa. She questions Australia’s uneasy relationship with its colonial past and struggles with issues of memory, collaboration, and responsibility. She says that in crafting her film, she also was deeply affected by the stories her Jewish husband’s grandmother, who left Berlin in 1936, told her about Germany.

As we have seen over the last decade and a half, young Germans continue to struggle on film with the legacy that their grandparents left the world. Shortland, working with British and German producers and fine young German actors, shot this film in German (with English subtitles) and on German soil. She wants to continue the discussion. “Lore” will make you think and try to understand – and that is not easy.

The film opens today at the Lincoln Plaza and Angelika theaters in New York.

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