Cate Shortland is crying. The Australian Jewish convert has been discussing her use of images of Holocaust victims in her disturbing new film, Lore, when tears suddenly fill her eyes.
The making of the movie — Shortland’s first since her award-winning debut, Somersault, in 2004, and Australia’s entry for this year’s best foreign language film Oscar — was a troubling experience from beginning to end. But nothing appears to have caused the sensitive director/co-writer as much anguish as those Yad Vashem photographs.
“Using them was the hardest part for me. Because, morally, the people within them don’t have a choice,” she says, her voice cracking with emotion. “Ethically, it was hugely problematic to me.”
If she had had the budget, she would have recreated the briefly glimpsed, but potently utilised, pictures of Nazi atrocities. “I didn’t want to use the real people,” Shortland insists, “because I felt so close to them.”
Lore is not all horror, much of it is beautiful and poetic; it is none the less uncomfortable to watch. Adapted from a story in British author Rachel Seiffert’s 2001 Booker-shortlisted novel, The Dark Room, and shot in German, it focuses on five siblings as they trek across the German countryside, led by the oldest sister, Lore, to their grandmother’s house near Hamburg, amid the collapse of Hitler’s regime.
As in Somersault, which also charted a young woman’s traumatic coming of age, Shortland adopts an approach that is intimate and empathetic. What makes Lore more challenging, however, is that the children are the offspring of Nazis (their SS father is a member of the Einsatzgruppen — mobile death units).
The eponymous heroine (played by sensational newcomer Saskia Rosendahl) has been conditioned to be unquestioningly antisemitic. The journey — which includes an encounter with an enigmatic young Jew — becomes an odyssey that awakens Lore to the lies that have informed her upbringing, and to the crimes perpetrated by her parents’ generation.
At first, Shortland wanted to do a different story from the same novel, in which the lines between good and evil were more clearly defined, but the film’s producers pushed her towards Lore.
“I think what I was really frightened of was that we don’t have that division — we’re within the perpetrators,” she explains. “This story is the toughest one in the book because the audience has to just look at these people as human beings, and make up their own minds.” Her “biggest nightmare” was making something that appeared “apologist. So we fought hard with the material, and Rachel helped us, to make sure that wasn’t going to happen”.
To try and understand Lore, Shortland met with aged former members of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (the League of German Girls). It was a surreal experience.
“We spoke to them really honestly and without judgement, and created this environment where they could just talk about what had happened, how they’d felt. There was a really strange nostalgia from a lot of them, because of the music and the dancing. The more we spoke to them, what had really affected them was that it was just drummed into them that you shouldn’t have empathy.”
If some viewers find that Shortland’s refusal to judge her characters creates a queasy tension between attraction and repulsion, they are not alone. “That’s what I felt the whole way along,” she says. “And I felt fury, absolute fury, a lot of the time.” Feeling unable to express her anger to her German cast and crew, she confided in her Jewish husband, filmmaker Tony Krawitz.
“He said kaddish on the first day of shooting, in the house that we shot in. The house had been taken from a Jewish family in the ’30s.” The reading was held privately, for family and friends. “We didn’t say kaddish in front of the crew, which has given me so much to think about why we didn’t,” says Shortland softly.
“I still feel like there’s that thing of not understanding: Jews are kind of weird and hearing the Hebrew…” She pauses for a moment. “They wouldn’t have understood why we were saying kaddish, I think. It was a strange thing, but really beautiful.”
Krawitz, who grew up in apartheid-era South Africa, was Shortland’s rock throughout the whole difficult process of making Lore. “He talks about everything with me,” she says. Krawitz’s father was the head of a synagogue in South Africa, but when Shortland decided to convert to Judaism, 17 years after they met, her husband, an atheist, was not keen.
“Tony loves Judaism. His films are about his culture. But his relationship to Judaism is so complicated, and he didn’t think it was important. But we were with his family [his grandmother escaped Germany in 1935] so much, and we were always having Shabbat and Pesach and everything, I wanted to be not just an observer but more integrated into it. And I’m so happy I’ve converted.”
They now have what she refers to as a “hybrid family”, having adopted two black South African children. Like the sons and daughters of Germans who lived through the Second World War, she is sure that they will one day ask: “Daddy, what did you do in apartheid?”
“So that’s why Tony and I never looked at this film from only one angle. I’m an Australian, my family came on the first fleet and were probably involved in terrible atrocities, so I can’t sit here and say: ‘Look at the Germans’. I also have to do some soul searching. And Tony’s family have to do that because they were involved in apartheid. So you don’t point. You are a perpetrator in some form.”