For decades after the war, “Hitler’s children” – those too young to have actively participated in the evils of Nazism yet old enough to bear a stain and share in the collective guilt – were as mute as their elders. Only recently has the silence been broken. Wibke Bruhns’s frank and revealing memoir, My Father’s Country, proved a landmark in print, followed by the likes of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas on the screen. Now Lore, a wrenching adaptation of the Rachel Seiffert novel, continues the story. Callow, barely in her teens, the girl of the title begins as an indoctrinated child but, in mere weeks, ends as someone else entirely – her childhood instantly destroyed by what she sees, her adulthood permanently scarred by what she learns.
Director Cate Shortland is quick to isolate the girl in the opening frame. She’s in a bathtub (the water imagery will recur) awaiting the arrival of her adored dad. It’s Bavaria in the spring of 1945, with the Allies encircling and the country in chaos, although Lore is sufficiently brainwashed to still believe the Fuhrer’s pledge of a “final victory.” Her SS father certainly does not, hastily burning his identity papers before getting captured. Neither does her mother, an ardent Nazi, who is beaten and raped, then falls into a catatonic state at the news of Hitler’s death, recovering only to bestow her daughter with a smattering of jewellery and this awful inheritance: “You must remember who you are.”
Abandoned, Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is left to lead her four younger siblings – twin boys, a small girl, plus a baby – on a long and perilous journey through the Bavarian forest to their grandmother’s residence in the north. Yes, through the woods to grandma’s house. This has all the elements of a dark fable, albeit strewn with darker facts – like the corpses that randomly dot the scorched earth; like the Russians and Americans and British already carving out their separate sectors with their separate dangers; like the woman Lore must bribe to breastfeed the baby; like the watch she steals from a dead man’s wrist.
And like the photos posted by the Allies on a bakery window, those first images of the death camps. Lore stares at them in stunned incomprehension, and later listens to the frustrated complaint of an elderly German hausfrau: “I had to look at photographs of dead Jews for two hours just to get a loaf of bread.” That tossed-off remark truly shocks us and, in so doing, restores to those now-familiar photographs their own power to shock. It’s a remarkable scene – casual words can have a terrifying potency.
The ethical compass shifts again with the arrival of Thomas (Kai Malina), a boy only slightly older than Lore. When she and the kids are stopped by an American soldier, Thomas rushes up to show his Jewish identity card and claim they are all part of the same family just released from the camps. The soldier waves them on. The older boy becomes their protector and the obvious irony – Lore is now obliged to embrace a person she was taught to despise – seems a bit precious at this stage. However, the tale has other surprises in store, which I shouldn’t divulge but which work perfectly to reinforce the central theme: that the vulnerable young, living in a world shaped by the moral choices of adults, are malleable not just by nature but by necessity. For better or worse, they must shape themselves accordingly. The choices aren’t theirs, at least not yet.
Of course, in an era when adults have chosen the worst option – to wage a world war – children grow up far too fast, leaving them, if they survive, to carry through their lives the scars of an experience only dimly understood at the time. The young principals here, Malina and especially Rosendahl, are superb at conveying that premature hardening, their elastic minds pummelled by inelastic forces.
So at the climax, having aged decades in a month, Lore reacts to a reassuring lie, “Your parents did nothing wrong,” by taking another bath, yet knowing now that the sins of the past can’t be washed away. When she shatters a symbol of that past, a delicate figurine, the shards surround her completely, as they always will. Meanwhile, the baby takes a first tentative step into the future. He will not remember that step, or the horrors that preceded it. His sister will have to tell him, if she chooses to shatter the silence too.