When one thinks of the Holocaust film genre, dramas such as “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist” instantly come to mind for their harrowing portrayals of victims and survivors who suffered at the hands of Nazis. But what about the German survivors – more specifically, the children of Nazi war criminals forced to come to terms with the atrocities of their parents? This is a question posed by the exceptional new German-language film, “Lore,” Cate Shortland’s follow-up to her acclaimed 2004 feature “Somersault.”
Based on the novel by Rachel Seiffert, “Lore” was shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and most recently picked up directing and cinematography accolades at the Beijing International Film Festival. While at home this past week, Shortland took time to speak with the East Valley Tribune about “Lore,” the casting of newcomer Saskia Rosendahl and how the film’s themes are pertinent to the recent tragedies in Boston.
Q: So to begin with, I read that you were first introduced to “The Dark Room” by a producer at the Edinburgh film festival. What struck you about this particular story and drove you to become involved in the project?
A: I thought it was incredible – it’s very fragile, it’s got a real fragility to it and it’s quite ambiguous in terms of, it doesn’t make assumptions that we usually draw about history. It just felt really smart and kind of seductive, in a way, to make something that confronted what I’d always believed. I’d never seen this perspective before.
Q: I understand that you did extensive research for the film in Germany. Could you share with me that process and any challenges you may have encountered during that time?
A: The most useful was the day we spent with people who were, I suppose they’d have to be in their 80’s. It was a room of about 10 people, no one really spoke English and they’d been in Hitler Youth. We spent this day at university with all these elderly Berliners, and the day started with them being really shy and thinking I was there to judge them. By the end of the day, they were speaking on a really personal level about their experiences during the war and many of them had been in Hitler Youth and that was fantastic because that really gave me an insight that you don’t get in the history books.
I did a lot of reading, of course. Strangely enough, I actually visited a few concentration camps. I know that’s not in the film but I kind of had to see the consequences of this family’s actions or the father and mother’s actions for myself. I sort of immersed myself in it for about four years but also my major at university was fascism. I studied history and art but fascism was kind of my great passion.
Q: Could you tell me about the casting of Saskia Rosendahl and what qualities of hers really convinced you that she could carry this film?
A: Yeah, we looked at I think 300 girls across Germany. We had actually cast the lead about three weeks before rehearsals were due to start but then we discovered that she was actually 14 and not 16, and we had to recast. We started recasting about 10 days before rehearsals were going to start and I had rejected Saskia about three months before when I saw a photograph of her – I didn’t even want to see her. Then the casting director said to me, “You know, you have to see this girl.”
Saskia hadn’t acted before, really, she was a dancer and I think it’s…her eyes, you see so much of this internal struggle when you look into her eyes and she’s incredibly intelligent for such a young actor, just so truthful. I love watching her, actually. It was really interesting editing her because there’s never a moment in the film when you think, “Oh, that’s fake,” and you don’t believe it. So it was just about making choices with her performance and it was never about trying to cover up a bad performance, which I think is the sign of a really good actor. She’s actually just been cast in a HBO series, so I think she’s got a great future ahead of her.
Q: The film was truly mesmerizing to look at aesthetically. What sorts of looks or feelings were you hoping to convey through the cinematography?
A: Well, of course the big thing with the film is the children traverse Germany so we start in the Black Forest and we end up on the North Sea. It felt like Germany was a character, and we really had to capture that incredible trek that they did. We looked at really old fairy stories and really old gothic prints and things like that. And then we looked at National Socialist propaganda and how they portrayed Germany and how nature was such a huge part of the movement. So that was a really big part of it.
Then we were looking at, I suppose things like, I really love Nan Goldin the photographer, so we wanted the film to have, kind of in a strange way, a real contemporary feel. We didn’t want it to look like a starchy period piece… We looked at all these really disparate sources to come up with the style but our DP Adam Arkapaw is really young – he was 29 when he shot the film – and it’s handheld so he was in amongst the children the whole time. It feels like he’s apart of it and it feels like the camera is a part of the story, which I really loved.
Q: Why do you think it’s important to tell stories like this from the German perspective and what sorts of themes or ideas do you believe audiences respond to?
A: I think they’re responding to looking at a family and the intricacies of how they deal with history, how they deal with the Holocaust. Not from our perspective, not from a perspective 60 years later, but a 14-year-old girl suddenly being confronted with the enormity of what her father’s done, realizing that her father’s not a hero, he’s a murderer. I think that’s really important.
I think there’s been a real shift in that we’re often really interested in what it means to be a perpetrator and I think, of course, the Holocaust is so overwhelmingly horrendous that it’s been very difficult to look at the perpetrators because there’s been kind of this blanket idea that they’re just monsters. Really, they’re people like us that committed monstrous acts, so I think that is kind of shifting. People and historians and artists are kind of looking at them through different eyes and sort of thinking, “Ah, they’re human beings like us.”
I’ve just been watching the bombings in Boston, you know, and I think what fascinated me about it aside from the huge, huge media attention it got was the way that that young guy committed that crime – that unimaginable crime – and then he went out to a party afterwards… That’s what happened in the Holocaust, that’s what happened in the war. People committed horrible, horrible crimes against humanity and then they’d go have dinner with their family.
I think that’s been really hard to face but I think it helps us immeasurably to understand those acts if we can look at it like that and try to work it out. I think it’s much harder to look at it like that. I think it’s easier to say, “Oh, they’re just all monsters and they were nothing like us,” but it doesn’t help.
Q: What did you personally learn or take away from the experience of making “Lore”?
A: That’s an interesting question. I’m Jewish and I think I had many preconceived ideas about Germany. Then researching the film, working with German people, looking at how they’ve dealt with their history and the transparency with which they deal with their history every day, a lot of them are like that – the majority I’d say. It was a really great learning experience, especially coming from a country like Australia that doesn’t deal with the atrocities we’ve committed and I think that North America’s the same. Whenever I visit, I’m always struck by the similarities, actually. So yeah, I think that was a really great experience.
I had my 16-year-old son working by my side the whole shoot and that was a really wonderful experience because he was the video split operator, and my niece was the stills photographer, so I kind of made the film in a different way. I made the film on my terms, I brought my family with me along the journey and I realized that I can make films like that. I don’t have to make films in any other system if I don’t want to and that was really a great liberation.
Q: To wrap things up, any films that you’ve seen recently that you’ve especially enjoyed or would recommend?
A: Yes, I loved “Rust and Bone.” It was incredible. And I really loved the American documentary about the boy who poses as… “The Imposter”? I think that was incredible. I loved “The Imposter,” and I loved “Rust and Bone.” And I just watched that documentary about the people in the armed forces…"The Invisible War." That was also incredible.
“Lore” opens this Friday, April 26, in Harkins Camelview 5 in Scottsdale. For more information about the film, visit http://www.musicboxfilms.com/lore-movies-53.php.