The titular character in this haunting film by Somersault director Cate Shortland is the 14-year-old daughter of a high-ranking Nazi official. When Allied forces inter her parents in their sweep through Germany as World War II comes to a close, Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is left to care for her four much-younger siblings, including a baby. So she leads them on a trek through her devastated country to find safety at their grandmother’s house. While Nazi Youth aren’t the highest on the world’s sympathy list, this film (based on the novel The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert) is all the more powerful for humanizing this family. Mostly, it’s a coming-of-age story for Lore. We get to watch her mind stretch, recoil, and expand again as she slowly uncovers the truth behind the regime she so reveres—and the father she loves.
Horrific scenes of death and rape punctuate the film, made even more brutal through the scope of the children’s eyes. But some of the more evocative moments in the story capture Lore acting, presumably for the first time, on her sexual urges, particularly in fraught interactions with Thomas, a Holocaust survivor the family encounters along the way. No one in this story is a saint, and no one pure evil.
Shortland and her cinematographer Adam Arkapaw pay great attention to detail in each scene—ants crowding the leg of a dead woman, oatmeal congealing in a bowl, black dye dripping off a widow’s hanging laundry. Lore’s textures and colors evoke equal parts wonder and horror. With a handheld camera capturing many scenes and several shots played in slow motion, much of the film feels like watching childhood memories projected on screen.