Fourteen-year-old Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) will eventually have to process the reality of the Nazi regime and come to terms with the propaganda she was raised to believe. Until then, she must simply survive, not only for her own sake, but also for the sake of her four young siblings. The year is 1945. The German resistance has collapsed, and the Allied forces have divided the Motherland into four military occupation zones. Lore was initially not aware of this, nor did she understand that her parents were wanted Nazi war criminals. All she knew was that her father (Hans-Jochen Wagner) disappeared soon after evacuating his family from their home, presumably because he was arrested, and that her mother (Ursina Lardi) willingly surrendered. With no resources apart from a few trinkets, she’s now faced with the monumental task of taking her brothers and sisters on a 600-mile journey to their grandmother’s house.
Adapted from Rachel Seiffert’s novel The Dark Room, Lore is a visceral, unnerving experience that reveals one of the most fundamental truths about war, namely that everyone suffers. When you’re surrounded by death and destruction, it seems pointless to separate enemy from ally, victim from perpetrator. As Lore and her siblings travel from one location to another, scraping by with what little they have to trade, we’re struck by the fact that the country they once called home is just as destitute as they are. Boarding houses are cramped and understocked. Private homes are in shambles and all but empty, save for a few miserable souls who cling to Hitler and his world vision with a desperation that borders on insanity. Dead bodies rot in disused rooms, and we’re left to wonder if the people they once were fell victim to the Nazi regime or were disillusioned patriots that took their own lives.
Photos of Holocaust victims are seen plastered on walls – grim snapshots of nude bodies piled in mass graves. The faithful refuse to believe what they’re seeing. The pictures, they claim with defiance, have obviously been staged. Lore will be exposed to them. We know she has been programmed to be anti-semitic, and we certainly cannot expect her to instantaneously accept the photos as fact. We can, however, hope that, by looking at them, the seeds of awareness have been planted. Regardless of whether or not she believes what she sees, she seems genuinely intrigued by it. She touches a recently plastered photo, which coats the tip of her finger with glue. Has this new information stuck? Has the ignorance and hatred fed to her by her parents? That will be much harder to wash away. The older glue gets, the sticker it becomes. Eventually, it dries permanently and cannot be removed.
Weeks into their journey, the siblings realize they’re being followed by a mysterious young refugee. He comes to their rescue when Lore is interrogated by an American soldier at a checkpoint; he produces papers proving that he’s a Jew who has been liberated from a concentration camp. His name is Thomas (Kai Malina). He joins the siblings as they travel through the Black Forest, although he never makes his reasons known. In fact, he doesn’t say much of anything. The younger siblings seem to like him, even though he shows no particular fondness for them. Lore, being older and more indoctrinated, often regards him with fear and hatred. It’s clear that they’re each depending on each other for survival, but when it comes to Thomas, she cannot fathom having to put her trust in someone she has been conditioned to hate.
Paradoxically, Lore is also helplessly fascinated by Thomas, perhaps even attracted to him. There are no romantic feelings, but there is a developing sexuality. It’s primal, uncontrollable, and confusing. When she places his hand between her legs, we think back to the beginning of the film, at which point Lore covertly witnessed her father doing the same thing to her mother. We don’t know what to make of that moment between Lore and Thomas. All we know is that, through no fault of her own, her perception of sex is incredibly limited. So too was her perception of the world during the war, at which point she was one of the privileged who was taught to obey. Now that the war is over, now that she has been thrust into the world, she finds herself questioning everything, including whether or not there are any answers.
If the siblings were to reach their grandmother’s home, what could they expect to find? We’re innately drawn to and comforted by that which is familiar, as long as it stays that way. Not everything does. It’s said that one can never really go home again, and in the case of this movie that’s very much true. Although complete understanding will be a long and painful process, Lore is very much aware that everything has been irrevocably changed – her country, her family, and most of all, herself. This doesn’t make Lore a coming of age story, as that would necessitate the inclusion of an emotional awakening. The title character doesn’t experience such a thing. She experiences only hardships and tragedy, and by the end of the film, the only thing she knows for sure is that she doesn’t know much of anything anymore. Much like the Motherland, her future is uncertain.
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