Almost a decade before Cate Shortland joined the indie-to-Marvel director pipeline last year with Black Widow, she made the overlooked drama Lore. It’s a beautiful yet horrific story about the teenage Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), whose world is torn apart after her high-ranking Nazi parents are taken to prison at the end of World War II. Hitler is dead, the Americans are closing in and Lore must take her four younger siblings through the wartorn Black Forest to their grandmother’s house in Hamburg. She discovers that everything her parents taught her was a lie when she finds photos of her uniformed father at the site of a concentration camp, which he had previously denied existed, and her old beliefs are further crushed when handsome Jewish refugee Thomas (Kai Malina) helps guide her little gang of ex-Hitler youths. What follows is a hauntingly alluring dissection of the way political ideology is inherently woven through our personal relationships, and what happens when that all comes crashing down.
Lore was made before movies like Jojo Rabbit were heralded as having a nuanced political perspective. I rented Lore four times from the video store when I was 14 years old because it treated me like an adult in a way that many historical dramas didn’t. Shortland didn’t write “Lore looks into the camera and denounces her Nazi parents” so that the audience picks up on the political message that Nazis are bad; instead, she expresses Lore’s growth through her defiance against authoritarianism in her personal relationships. Authoritarianism is an evil that permeates the realm of the personal just as much as the political sphere. Whether in the context of a romantic relationship or a parent/child dynamic, or even within one’s relationship to oneself, when one person expects total obedience from another, at the cost of personal freedoms, that is authoritarian. Here, this idea is specifically seen in Lore’s relationship with Thomas and her grandmother.
In the case of Lore’s relationship with Thomas, she must resist her bias against Jews, which she now knows to be a big bucket of lies. While Jewish-boy-meets-Nazi-girl is an inherently charged concept, Shortland’s direction infuses their fragile relationship with enough subtlety that Lore and Thomas’ interactions feel like genuine moments between lovers instead of vessels for flat political messaging. Their communication is rarely through dialogue, adding to the carefully crafted tension: In one spontaneously heartbreaking moment, Lore puts Thomas’ hand up her skirt, but pushes him away when he rests his head against her legs. A brief look, a rare touch—there’re no melodramatics, no long soliloquies about forbidden love, just two human beings coming to an unspoken understanding for a brief moment in time.
Lore’s more external rebellion against her strict grandmother at the end of the film hits even harder. Even if it seems like Lore is only eating bread before she’s allowed, or smashing her mother’s delicate porcelain deer figurines, these small rebellions are meaningful because they indicate that a soul indoctrinated into hatred has the capacity to change. Rarely do we see a loss of innocence story where defiance isn’t seen as immature. Generally, defiance is a childish trait that needs to be grown out of, but in Shortland’s tale of shattered identity, Lore’s growth stems from newfound agency succeeding over a previous loyalty to tradition. Lore has made it over the river and through the woods to her grandmother’s house, but that doesn’t mean happily ever after. Her journey through a dangerous and broken Germany forever changed her from a docile child into a survivor who must question the institutions that were supposed to protect her.
Lore respects its audience and its protagonist by refusing to shy away from the apathy of its fairy tale heroine, as a lesser film might. Fallen from grace, hungry and full of fear, Lore is often cruel and unsympathetic. As she fights battles against her own ingrained authoritarianism, and the oppressive forces of others, who can blame her? Many may find it difficult to root for Lore as she viciously snaps at her shaken siblings and helps Thomas commit a grisly murder in order to cross a river; of course, it doesn’t help that she grew up with a silver spoon in her mouth polished with the blood of innocents. But for those of us who find ourselves rooting for Lore to succeed despite ourselves, her story revels in the potential for raw insubordination in the face of war, both out in the world and within ourselves.
Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.