It could be an image out of classic folklore: a girl, abandoned by her parents on the brink of womanhood, guides her younger siblings through a dark enchanted forest, past ogres and abysses, all the way to grandmother’s house. But the forest is Germany in May of 1945, the Third Reich is in the final stages of collapse, and the heroine’s journey is toward a tortured acceptance of her country’s and family’s guilt.
“Lore” — even the title has the heft of legend — is the second film by the gifted Australian director Cate Shortland, and it occupies a stark dramatic minefield somewhere between historical reality and psychosexual myth. Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) — short for Hannelore — is a pigtailed 14-year-old when we first meet her, delighted that her father (Hans Jochen-Wagner), has returned from the war. But Papa is preoccupied with burning documents and escaping the Allies, and Mutti (Ursina Lardi) curses her husband’s cowardice and gives herself up to the conquerors. Take the other children, she tells Lore, and get to safety in Hamburg, 500 kilometers away across the Black Forest.
On top of this Incredible Journey framework, Shortland builds a harrowing tale that plunges into the title character’s mind and emotions. The landscape the children cross is a chaos of bombed buildings, dead bodies, panicked survival. Rumors flourish in a moral void and food is scarce; rape and death are constant threats. The younger children — hard-nosed 12-year-old Liesel (Nele Trebs), 7-year-old twin boys Günther (André Frid) and Jürgen (Mika Seidel), 7-month-old Peter (Nick Holaschke) — vary in their understanding, but Lore has seen the photos coming out of Auschwitz, and her complicity has a personal dimension.
Shortland’s first film, “Somersault” (2004), made a star of Abbie Cornish as a rebellious, sexually confused teenager. Adapting a section of Rachel Seiffert’s novel “The Dark Room” with co-writer Robin Mukherjee, the director continues in that vein in “Lore,” but with a more impressionistic approach. The camerawork by Adam Arkapaw is ripe, deeply hued, and disorienting; the shots hover in too close, the focus shifting in and out. We never get the big picture because the traumatized Lore can barely get outside her own head. If the movie teeters on the edge of over-direction and occasionally falls off, it also takes us far inside a girl’s exploding conscience.
In the title role, newcomer Rosendahl gives a performance somewhere between stunning and stunned. Part of Lore’s awakening is sexual; the children are joined by a lanky, vaguely threatening young wanderer named Thomas (Kai Malina), whose papers identify him as a Jew and who becomes the family’s protector on the road. Lore’s attraction to him is overpowering and inarticulate — part hormones, part hatred, part collective guilt — and it leads her into actions that unmoor her even further. “What have we done?” she cries out after one particularly horrific event, and like so much in this film, the line echoes out toward the metaphorical horizon.
I’m not sure “Lore” holds up to repeated viewings — Shortland’s style is so feverish it could quickly turn precious — but it demands to be seen at least once. A fiercely poetic portrait of a young woman staggering beyond innocence and denial, it’s about the wars that rage within after the wars outside are lost.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.