SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: The long-awaited second feature from Australian director Cate Shortland explores the tribulations faced by the young in the aftermath of World War II.
Inevitably, it is the victorious parties’ efforts which become a matter of record and celebration, as evidenced by the Second World War, and the Allies’ victories against the Germans which have been endlessly showcased in cinema. For her long-awaited follow-up to 2004’s AFI award winner Somersault, Australian writer/director Cate Shortland dares to ponder the opposite perspective. Adapting Rachel Seiffert’s novel The Dark Room for the screen as Lore, Shortland details five German children’s struggle for survival in the immediate post-war era.

When combat ceases in 1945, teenage Hannelore (Saskia Rosendahl, in her first film role) welcomes the return of her father (Hans-Jochen Wagner, Everyone Else). Alas, his homecoming is shortlived, with the SS guard and his wife (Ursina Lardi, Songs of Love and Hate) wanted for their crimes. Hannelore is left to fend for her four younger siblings as they attempt to reach the their grandmother’s house in Hamburg. For the family brought up in the ways of the Nazi party, their trip proves tough; the assistance of a concentration camp survivor (Kai-Peter Malina, The White Ribbon) proves instrumental in their travels.

Hannelore’s difficulty reconciling her ingrained ideology with the new world order underscores her siblings’ efforts, with reports of the battle, the human toll and the actions of the Fuhrer in stark contrast to everything she knows. As she struggles against antagonising attitudes and adverse conditions while escorting Liesel (Nele Trebs, My Prince, My King) Gunther (newcomer André Frid), Jorgen (Mika Seidel, Stopped on Track) and baby Peter across the divided country, her beliefs and morality are questioned, with the importance of survival the only constant.

Whilst the consideration of the plight of the other victims of the Nazi regime – the supporters themselves – sparks an initial sense of interest that is sustained with tension and intensity throughout the German language effort, Shortland’s film adds technical mastery to its thematic and emotional achievements. The sumptuous, stunning cinematography courtesy of director of photography Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom, Snowtown) is paramount in conveying the impact of the physical and psychological combat, as is Max Richter’s (Perfect Sense) immersive, enthralling score.

Of course, as in her first feature, the efforts of the filmmaker and her leading lady do not go unnoticed. The former proves her skill on the page and screen (along with co-writer Robin Mukherjee of TV’s Eastenders), and the latter (bearing more than a passing resemblance to Somersault’s Abbie Cornish) excels in a striking centrepiece role. An emphatic return for the director and a memorable debut for the actress, their nuanced nous combine to harrowing, heartbreaking effect. Lore haunts with tenderness and tragedy; an accomplished alternative to the usual war dramas.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Director: Cate Shortland
Australia/Germany/UK, 2012, 124 mins

Sydney Film Festival
June 6 – 17

Sarah Ward

Sunday 10 June, 2012

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay