Nazism functions as the uppermost challenge to most ethical arguments; online it’s such a debate fixture that there’s even a name for the moment Hitler gets dragged into an argument. Director Cate Shortland’s Lore deliberately tests the outer limits of the viewer’s sense of mercy as it traces the fate of five remorseless young Nazis making their way across Germany at the end of World War II. The film opens with a family preparing to flee their lavish home; the father is an SS officer and his wife an ardent supporter of the party. They bag whatever valuables they can, the father kills the family dog, and the whole clan sets out for a remote country estate. The children are oblivious; the oldest, Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), cannot get her mother to admit anything between sobs. Before long, the parents are arrested and the children (including one infant) complete their quick descent from German near-royalty to destitute refugees. They set off on foot for their grandmother’s house in the north of Germany, over 500 miles away.
The journey alone is daunting enough, but added to the children’s travail is their fugitive status; the war essentially over, German nationals are not permitted to travel, particularly as they lack documents. Eventually the children are confronted by American officers on a country road. They are saved when a Jewish man, Thomas (Kai Malina), shows his passport and claims the children are with him. It’s with the introduction of Thomas that Lore starts to find its footing; until his appearance, the film had been merely a queasy series of shrieks and grim images of children in the wild. And yet, even after Thomas appears, connecting with the children of Lore remains difficult. They lack empathy, even deliberately: Rosendahl plays Lore totally without feeling, a short blond Nazi automaton. Images of concentration camp horrors stir little in her, and even after Thomas demonstrates his basic decency she refuses to recognize him as human and instructs her charges to do the same. Thomas himself is not particularly likeable — he comes off as a loner and a lech. Shortland eventually has Lore recognize a confused arousal in herself; Lore’s nascent sexuality confounds her as she tries to square her attraction to Thomas with the fact that Thomas represents everything she’s been taught to despise. She cannot dominate him and she cannot share herself with him, meaning their only potentially romantic moments instead becomes instances of darkly mechanical grasps, emotionless spasms Lore quickly regrets.
The children of Lore move north slowly, encountering threats both local and overarching. A backwoods fisherman refuses to give Lore & co. a ride across a river without a sexual exchange with the young girl; later, a checkpoint makes passage impossible for the kids, even with Thomas’s special status. Both moments more or less demand a death: Lore, even as it challenges the viewer’s values, cannot seem to challenge the predictability of convention. As the children approach their grandmother’s home (literally over a river and through some woods), Lore grows tedious. The film began by slyly challenging what we mean when we label someone an innocent, but by its end it’s hard not to root against the brats for their unwillingness to develop. Lore betrays Thomas, never having trusted him, yet her elliptical moments of Freudian growth continue. After the children reach their grandmother’s home, it’s only Lore who demonstrates any sense of having gone through a horrifying ordeal at one of the most remarkable moments in human history, and even this she cannot express explicitly — not because of the character’s age but because of the film’s inherent clumsiness.
Lore seeks to unsettle, to prompt the viewer to examine what it means to judge and condemn. Whether or not Lore, the film’s focus, has managed to grow morally — to move beyond her anti-Semitism — is left undiscussed. Thomas’s true status as a victim of the Holocaust is challenged, almost giving Lore a pass on having to confront the basic challenge Thomas presents to the worldview she’s been inculcated with since youth. These are children of the Third Reich, and Shortland asks us if we can champion their survival, regardless of whether or not they grow into the same villains their parents were. The answer, ultimately, is no, but only because a film that demands such an intellectual and ethical sacrifice from the viewer must at least contain compelling enough filmmaking to hold that viewer’s interest.