A few years ago, Cate Shortland returned to her home in Australia from a European film festival to discover that she and her husband were reading the same book. Coincidentally, two separate colleagues had recommended Rachel Seiffert's Booker-nominated The Dark Room, a 2001 collection of three novellas about German war guilt. Shortland and her husband Tony Krawitz are directors, and nobody recommends books to directors idly: The British producer Paul Welsh wanted Shortland to film the second of the novellas, a story about a Nazi teenager trekking across Germany with her younger siblings at the end of the Second World War.
That was how Shortland found herself in eastern Germany in 2011, filming in an abandoned house that once belonged to a Jewish family and speaking to a cast of child actors through a translator.
"Paul Welsh wanted to do English language because it would have a more mainstream audience, and I just said if we did it in English I couldn't direct it," she said in an interview. "For me, if you are not starting in a place of truth where have you got to go?"
The book itself has very little dialogue. Shortland worked with the German script editor Franz Rodenkirchen on adapting an English-language script penned by British screenwriter Robin Mukherjee; their final draft was then translated into German.
The film Lore, which screens in Toronto at TIFF's Bell Lightbox this week, stars a group of four young German actors who were aged about 9 through 17 when the movie was shot. The eldest is Saskia Rosendahl, playing Lore, the daughter of prominent Nazis who have been arrested by the Allies. Lore and her four younger siblings (including a babe in arms) travel hundreds of kilometres on foot from Bavaria to her grandmother's house in northern Germany. The film is the story of their perilous journey through Soviet-occupied Germany and of Lore's gradual awakening from Nazi propaganda: The children believe their father was a hero off fighting in Byelorussia; in fact, he was the commander of the notorious mobile death squads that gunned down millions of civilians.
"People often said about the Holocaust, it's impossible to understand," Shortland says, "but Franz [Rodenkirchen] said this thing to me: 'The Holocaust was made up of hundreds of thousands of individual acts of murder.' That is who the father was, and the mother knew about it.… There was this horrible, horrible dark heart to that family."
The point of the story, however, is not the parents' actions but the children's reactions, particularly the tug-of-war that begins inside the teenage Lore.
"We were doing it to try and find out the truth of what it was to be indoctrinated," Shortland says of the film. "The kids were kept in this bizarre ignorance.… the Holocaust was taking place in their everyday life, but they had blinkers on."
Asking child actors to play these roles was tricky. They were shown Nazi-era school books and taught the games, the propaganda songs and the lists of rules ("A good German boy doesn't steal …") that shaped young lives under National Socialism. The contemporary children were introduced to a world in which erect postures, strict table manners and great deference toward adults were required. And they were told about the war.
"We gave the script to the parents," Shortland explained. "The kids are all from the GDR [the former East Germany]. Their parents understood indoctrination. We said, 'How much of this script do you want us to give to the kids? Do you want us to just explain some of the scenes?' And they said, 'No, they have to know everything, they have to understand everything about what they are playing because otherwise they are not playing it truthfully.'
"We explained to them this was how families worked.… We explained to them about how school was structured, how games were structured, but we never explained to them about the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile death squads, what their dad was doing.… They will learn that through their parents and their education system, but they got it. They understood the dad was a murderer."
Shooting had many emotional moments. The film's composer, Briton Max Richter, taught the children the cheerful Aryan folk songs that were a key activity in Nazi youth groups and which the actors sing on screen in several scenes, but Richter confessed later to Shortland that he found it difficult: His wife's family was obliterated in the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, Shortland's husband, Krawitz, who was at TIFF last year with his film Dead Europe, is the descendant of German Jews who escaped the Holocaust, and she converted to his religion a few years ago. They used his old family photos as props in the movie, and after they discovered that the house in Goerlitz, on the Polish border, where they were filming had been seized from a Jewish family in the 1930s, Krawitz said Kaddish, the prayer of mourning, on the first day of their shoot.
"It was a bizarre and powerful shoot because we were constantly thinking about the people who weren't there," she said.
The film leaves her meditating on war guilt, and the contemporary implications of historical crimes, which she feels the Germans address more honestly than other societies.
"I don't think I did the film because I am Jewish or because my husband is Jewish, I did it because it's a really interesting take on what it means to be the child of perpetrators," she says. "I was interested in the questions the film asks of the audience, not just in Germany, but say, in Canada, in looking honestly at your own history, your own colonial history, in the same way as Australia.
"Like Canada, we do not interrogate our own history, we do not have memorials for the atrocities … that have happened to indigenous people. We celebrate Australia Day as the day white people arrived. We have so far to go, and the Germans, despite their horrendous history, can be incredibly proud of how they are dealing with it now."
Lore screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto from May 31 to June 6.