Cate Shortland’s follow-up to her acclaimed 2004 drama Somersault is a powerful and provocative exploration of guilt and responsibility following the demise of the Third Reich.
Interview by Jason Wood
Jason Wood: What attracted you to Rachel Seiffert’s novel ‘The Dark Room’?
Cate Shortland: Rachel’s book was given to me by Paul Welsh, my producer, at the Edinburgh Film Festival, where I was screening my first film Somersault. I was immediately fascinated by its perspective and beauty – the book is written in these raggedy and very fragile fragments. I felt it was very cinematic. It was also irresistible to do something so frightening: a film about the children of mass murderers, set in fairytale forests and fields – and in a language that I don’t speak.
JW: In terms of other films that deal with the burden of the past, and particularly that of Nazi Germany and the sins of the fathers, were there any major influences?
CS: I was influenced by the Klimov film Come and See which is set in Belarus but is about the victims of the Einsatzgruppen (mobile death squads). The film also has a specific approach to nature and the performances – including two remarkable child actors – are incredibly honest.
JW: How much personal connection did you feel with some of the central themes?
CS: My husband’s grandparents left Berlin in 1937, as Jewish refugees. I also have a strong connection to Germany and its history. I have lived on and off in Berlin for the last few years and I am inspired by its people as well as its art and culture – Fassbinder is one of my favourite film makers. I am interested in the transparency with which Germany as a country is attempting to deal with the Holocaust. By contrast, in Australia, we still refuse to deal with our past. In a way, this poisons us.
JW: I imagine your research was extensive. How did your journey into history affect the way you decided to shape your characters, and did the discoveries that you unearthed exert any kind of personal toll?
CS: The heart of Lore is a love story. All the research I did and all the films and books the kids watched helped to inform the film. However, we were really attempting to make something fresh and alive – something truthful. Saskia Rosendahl carried out a lot of research into the Hitler Youth and the role of young people in the Nazi family and in German society at that time. But we always went back to the role of human instinct. Her character can be both horrible and quite tender. Saskia played every scene with the same suspension of judgment, preferring instead to rely on how the character would react instinctively in each moment.
JW: Lore is a complex character. How challenging was it to base your film around a character who is, initially at least, marked by her complete lack of empathy?
CS: National Socialism dehumanised society. It began with the children. Part of young girls’ training within the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls) was to learn about their superiority – they were warned about racial defilement. The training attempted to quash all empathy and replace it with steely determination. Of course these are things that fall away for Lore, when she is confronted with Thomas and her desire for him. It also happens when she is confronted with the truth of the Nazi regime, its horrendous crimes and her father’s involvement in it.
JW: Thomas, likewise, is a very complex character.
CS: Thomas is unknowable. He is a refugee who might have committed crimes. He is running away from something, but we are kept in the dark about the reason for his fear. We have to experience him as Lore does, in the present. His identity is opaque, a reflection of the situation for many people in 1945, after the war ended, when people took on whole new identities. Thomas, like Lore, is very scared to reveal himself. He is perhaps my favourite character in the film, as I am still perplexed by him.
JS: The casting is impeccable. How arduous a process was it finding the young actors to portray Thomas, Liesel and Gunther?
CS: When we were casting for the lead, we looked at over 300 girls across Germany. Saskia came into the casting in the last week. She is a dancer but had not been in Germany before so she was very fresh and unpretentious. She also had nothing to lose and was so unguarded and emotional when she began to rehearse scenes with Kai, who plays Thomas. It was incredible working with her. I had seen Kai in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and had seen photographs of him. I could feel what a powerful presence he has. I knew he would be right as soon as I saw him.
JW: Like Somersault, Lore is accomplished in terms of its aesthetic. How did you achieve the balance between beauty and brutality?
CS: We looked at diaries and lots of old news reels, as well as exploring the aesthetics of the Nazi movement. Nature was such a huge part of Fascist doctrine in Germany. In our film, the German landscape becomes a central character. Our cinematographer Adam Arkapaw was very young (29 years old) when we made the film and he brought an inspiring sense of anarchy to the set. He and I wouldn’t shoot something unless we were really in love with it, the rationale being to create an intimacy with the children so that at times the film feels a little like a documentary. Details were very important as this really reflects the way Rachel Sieffert built up the character of Lore. You feel her through what she observes: blue veins under pale skin, water dripping off her hair, mist on a landscape.
JW: What was it about Max Richter’s work that made you seek him out and what did you hope his compositions would bring to your film?
CS: Max Richter is a great composer. We did look at 20th-century composers such as Karl Orff who composed music for the 1936 German Olympics. We also considered someone like Philip Glass. Max’s score is, at times, atmospheric and, on other occasions, grand and robust. I never imagined we would have such a score – it is wonderful working with collaborators that constantly push you out of your comfort zone.
With thanks to Curzon cinemas
Lore opens on Fri 22 February.