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Cate Shortland

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The Australian director discusses national guilt and Nazi adolescence for her second feature, Lore.

Australian director Cate Shortland’s follow up to her 2004 debut Somersault, Lore is based on Rachel Seiffert’s novel 'The Dark Room', and follows teenager Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) as she leads her siblings across a devastated Germany after their beloved Nazi parents are imprisoned, meeting a Jewish boy along the way. LWLies met Shortland in London recently to discuss national guilt and Nazi adolescence.

LWLies: Were you worried about responses because of the period, and being in Germany?

Shortland: Yeah. Even writing the script, I was worried. I’ve never had that feeling of worrying about how something will be perceived as much as with this film. So it was almost like with every utterance they made, we’d go back and forth, back and forth. Because of the problem of making something strong and truthful about the children of perpetrators, but not veering off into some bizarre apologist sentimentality. And Rachel Seiffert was really good, because she’d had the same worry.

And how did they respond?

The German people? It’s such a diverse response. But I find it’s still really, really difficult for younger people to articulate exactly what it means. The only thing I can think of – and I thought of this when I was in Germany, and I haven’t thought of it for ages – is I was standing in a theatre foyer in Johannesburg, and I was introduced to one of the most famous actors in South Africa, John Carney, and he looked at me and he smiled, he was a very dignified gentleman. And he said, “How does it feel to come from a country that treats your blacks like dogs?” And everyone was standing, having a glass of champagne, and I felt utter shame, but I felt this white-hot anger. And I just remembered that occurrence this week. And it gave me a tiny inkling of what it must have felt like to be a young German.

What was Saskia Rosendhal’s feeling about that period, going in?

Saskia knew a lot, because every young German goes through an education about the Holocaust. But I think that education is often about what the regime did. It’s not what my grandfather did. And I think that’s been the real difficulty with the film, it’s not talking about Nazi monsters who committed it. It’s talking about daddy. And the hardest part for Saskia was talking about the film in the States. Because she’d stand on stage in America, and people would make terrible generalisations, and ask her really loaded questions – "How does it feel to be a young German making a film about National Socialism?" And I got quite cross. But I talked with Saskia about it a bit, and said to her, "What I’ve learned – because I’m a real absolutist, and I have to fight that – is that you can really not generalise, ever, about any society. And collective guilt just doesn’t work, because it shuts down dialogue."

Your time living in Germany must have given you a complicated relationship with the country. Because on the one hand your husband Tony Kravitz’s family are refugees from Nazism, and on the other hand, Berlin’s a fantastic city. And it seem that Germans have that same complicated relationship with Germany.

Yeah, that’s right. Berlin, as we all know, is the most vibrant, open, welcoming, civilised place, and it’s sort of our second home. My husband always laughs and says he loves being a Jew in Germany. But yeah, it’s really close to our heart. I actually feel for young Germans, and that weight they carry. And I think before this week even living there, I didn’t really get it. But this week I really felt it. Because in the question and answer when we showed the film in Hamburg, there was often silence. What do we say?

Is the main horror for Lore coming into her adult estate, putting away childish things, and waking up into as bad an adult society as there’s been?

Yeah, someone described it as waking from her Nazi dream, which was very beautiful. And I think you wake from your Nazi dream and discover that you’re in this completely morally bankrupt place. Young people always look to older people for mirroring and what they should do, and she can’t do that any more. At the beginning of the film she’s sure she knows everything, and at the end of the film she knows nothing. Which gives her a lot of freedom.

She’s going through adolescence, and when she gets a look at the primal scene between her parents, it’s violent, and clues to how things really are start popping up. As she goes through the woods, there are ashes and cinders of evidence floating through the air, which she can’t read...

Well when we thought about it, the hardest part for Lore is she has all these questions, and there’s absolutely no one there who’s ever going to answer them, and that’s going to be her adult life as well. And so you have this character that will exist for their entire life in a place of uncertainty, and that’s Rachel Seiffert, because that’s her family. So that beautiful idea comes from Rachel.

It’s growing up cursed, you could say, but also having a deeper understanding of the world around you, because you know how ambiguous and awful it is.

Yeah, like Rachel’s family are all the most absolute humanists.

In German folklore, the woods are where a person goes on their travels, where in a British story they might go to sea. So is there a dark fairy tale aspect to Lore’s journey through the forest?

There’s two aspects, I think. The cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s family were Russian refugees. He’s 29, and he came to the film with this really interesting idea, because his grandfather travelled on foot as well. And also the children have no passes, so they can’t go on what was called the Great Trek. They can’t go on the road, because all those people were checked, so they have to travel in the woods. But also we looked at National Socialism and its relationship with nature, and the whole idea of the Fatherland. So Germany became a huge character in the film. And the idea of nature for Adam and I was that human beings commit horrendous atrocities, and nature stands vigil. So when that little boy is killed, because Thomas stole the food off the Russian soldiers, we put these shots in of nature carrying on. We thought maybe his body just gets taken by the forest.

Do you think there’s something to that fairy tale aspect, too? There’s the old woman in the cottage, like Hansel and Gretel...

Oh, totally. You know, I just read this fantastic article on the connection between German Romanticism and National Socialism, and the trajectory was almost complete. It gives me cold shivers. That also was in us. The idea of this perfect land, this absolutely pristine nature on the one hand, which was German society and culture and how they saw themselves, and then this absolute, total fucking animalistic murder on the other hand. And the two things were happening at exactly the same time. And that was also important for us within the design. So the house at the beginning was in reality a Jewish house. And the art and the furniture and the fabrics, everything is perfect, and yet you have [claps hands sharply three times] this other. The underworld.

There’s an awful lot of fecundity and ripeness in the film, and Lore’s coming into adolescence. There are a lot of babies and breasts...

There’s a lot of breasts, on purpose...

There’s this dazzling beauty, and things coming alive, and yet there’s a rottenness to that ripeness.

Yeah. Even when they see that corpse at the end, it’s going into the earth. It’s the same thing with the dead bodies. It sounds absolutely horrible, but we started with fresh meat – this is how the make-up artists and the production designer talked about it. A woman has just been gang-raped, probably hours before, and murdered. And then the second corpse is probably three or four days old. And then the last corpse is probably three weeks old. And by the time the children see the last corpse, it doesn’t mean anything to them. The shock’s gone.

Those locations you were talking about, in the old DDR – were some of them resonant to the point of feeling haunted?

Yeah. The two houses we shot in in Gorlitz were Jewish houses. They were totally wrecked. And the production designer did an incredible job. Gorlitz also had one of the first concentration camps. We were shooting in a field where the children were trying to cook eggs, and we’d already set up and we were shooting, and then the man came from the village and said, "See there, see there. Lager...[camp]." And at one stage all the children were lying on the ground with Thomas, and they’re in a hollow that’s a bomb crater. And Hitler’s radio bunker was about 10 metres from there, on the Western Front, and we actually shot in that. And then we cut the scene. So every place we went – like the armaments factory was a slave labour camp. So my husband said kaddish on the first day of shooting. But not in front of the crew, because it would have been too...difficult.

So all of those places are infected, you could say.

Mm-hm. And unmarked. Which is the other strange part for us, as Brits or Australians or Americans. You know how everything is celebrated in terms of war. We went to Hitler’s radio bunker, and it was in the middle of the forest, and we were with historians, and there’s nothing there to say what it was.

It’s almost like it’s something unholy that must be grown over as if it had never been.

Exactly. And Adam Arkapaw and I, and Silke Fischer, who was the designer, gave us the idea with the production design, in terms of the forest, that everything will just grow over, and it’s almost like history will just be embedded, and pushed down, till it’s no longer there.

Is one of the hardest truths in the film that Lore can have a visceral loathing for someone she takes to be Jewish, and perhaps not be a monster, or even not be particularly blamed, because it’s all she knows?

Ah, yeah, god. I think you have to take your judgement, and leave it at home. Because the parents would have joined the Party in 1933. So everything, Christmas, birthdays, funerals – they didn’t have hymns any more at funerals, they had National Socialist songs – every single aspect of those children’s lives was National Socialist. When the child looks at Jesus Christ, he doesn’t know what it is. And that was really fascinating. I loved that idea. It was almost like they were in a cult. And that was the only way I could relate to it. But I’m a pretty romantic person, and I don’t think I would have done the film if it didn't have that great love affair in the middle. Which is not consummated, and it’s almost never articulated. But I think they’ll each be a great love for each other for the rest of their lives. And she learns to feel again, because she feels such desire for him.

It’s one of the great collisions that happens. Because she is who, where and when she is, she has this visceral loathing for a Jew and awakening desire, crashing together inside her.

Yeah, she almost desires him more, because of that. I was talking to Saskia about it. Saskia was saying, "Perhaps she’ll never desire someone as much as him. Perhaps she’ll never feel that feeling again."

What else is Thomas there for in the film?

For me, it’s about identity. Because everyone has triggers, about Islam, about Judaism, about National Socialism. So as soon as you see refugees, you assume a certain thing. And what Rachel so eloquently does is turn that on its head, and in the end we are not sure what that human being is. And that was one of the hardest parts in the edit.

He could have been an SS man himself for all we know.

He tattooed himself. That tattoo is not from Auschwitz. I loved that – that everything is slipping through your fingers, in Germany in 1945. Nothing was real. One of the biggest crimes in 1946 was bigamy.

Why did you put your husband’s family’s photos in the wallet at the end? It’s the first time you see victims in the film – apart from dead bodies in the woods. And they don’t look like victims. They look like this beautiful young family.

Mm. They are. Once Tony and I went to Frankfurt, and we went to the Jewish Museum, and it was so horrendous for us. It was like anthropological. There was no one there. And it was like in a glass case, here is a minora. Everything was religious iconography. Whereas what Tony and I realised afterwards when we were drinking vodka and kind of laughing, trying to get this off of our skin, was that it should have been a pair of tennis shoes, and a chess set, and somebody’s bloody, I dunno, person. Because we do it with refugees now. Often it’s 'refugees', or 'Jews', and it distances you so much. And so what I wanted to do with those photographs, and it was one of the most important scenes in the film for me, was show, these people that were murdered were just like you. And she knows it when she sees it.

That’s when the lies really start to shatter.

Totally. Not Thomas, but that moment when she looks, and sees the mother’s so stylishly dressed, and they’ve got the German shepherd, they’re sitting in this beautiful garden, and then Omi [granny], which is Tony’s Omi, is sitting in a rowboat, at 17. She’s just a girl. She’s not a Jew. She’s just a young, German girl. Blue-eyed, blonde-haired. That was really important.

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