From the Australia of 'Somersault' to the Germany of 'Lore': A Q&A with Director Cate Shortland

Nele Trebs, Saskia Rosendahl (Lore), Mika Seidel, and Andre Frid in 'Lore'/Photo courtesy of Music Box Films

It’s been eight years since Australian writer-director Cate Shortland’s celebrated debut "Somersault" hit theaters, but it’s been worth the prolonged wait for her second film, "Lore," which recently dominated the Stockholm International Film Festival and is Australia’s official entry for the 2013 best foreign language Oscar.

"Lore," filmed almost entirely in German, is based on one of a trio of stories in Rachel Seiffert’s Booker-shortlisted novel The Dark Room, which examines the reverberating impacts of Nazism on modern Germany. Set in 1945, the film tells the story of fourteen-year-old Lore, who is left to care for her four young siblings after her father, an SS officer, and mother, a Nazi loyalist, are imprisoned by the Allies. With little money and no adult guidance, Lore leads her brothers and sister 900 kilometers across their war-torn nation to their grandmother’s home in Hamburg. In the midst of post-war instability, Lore faces violence, apathy, and a growing awareness of her parents’ involvement in the atrocities of Nazism. It’s a harrowing journey to watch a child undergo, and yet, Lore is just old enough that when she espouses the hateful rhetoric with which she’s been raised, it’s difficult not to judge her as an adult.

When she won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, Seiffert was praised for the “unsentimental and spare” way in which she depicted the complexities of Germany’s “tormented history.” With Lore Shortland takes a similarly light hand, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions about her complicated central character. But throughout production, Shortland grappled with her own ambivalent feelings about Lore and telling a World War II story from the perspective of a Nazi sympathizer. In an effort to put her mind at peace, Shortland and her husband said Mourner’s Kaddish on the first day of shooting. Shortland recently sat down with Signature to discuss bringing this stark, stirring story to life.

Signature: Of the three stories in The Dark Room, why did you choose “Lore” to adapt?

Cate Shortland: I wanted to do a far more redemptive story -- the last story about a man in his thirties who goes searching for the truth. But Paul Welsh [one of the film’s producers] said, “Nobody has ever made a story about the children of perpetrators.” This story is really difficult, and I was terrified that it would be seen as apologist. I’m so thankful that he really pushed for the scariest option, which is what we should all do when we’re creating work. I wanted to go for the safer one. I’m just lucky he didn’t let me.

SIG: It is really scary.

CS: If it had gone the wrong way, it could have really gone off track.

SIG: So how did you keep it on track?

CS: My husband’s family is German Jews. I’m Jewish. So it was strange: On one side of me, I had the victims; and then on the other side of me, I had this very judgmental, didactic idea of who the perpetrators were. So for me, the writing process and the researching process was the real search in myself to go beyond my judgment of what I thought I knew, and to try and go to the truth. To muzzle myself almost, so that I couldn’t say, 'Okay, this is a good character. This is a bad character.' [I had to] just to look at the flaws and ambiguities in every character and to accept them.

That process continued right through rehearsals and right through the shooting. We really had to suspend our judgment and create a shadow narrative where the audience can exist within the work and battle with the work themselves because we haven’t done that work for them.

SIG: What do you mean by the shadow narrative?

CS: It’s actually something that Laura Jones said. She’s a writer in Australia, who’s written films with Jane Campion. It’s sort of a beautiful idea that within the work, we create a space for the viewer. I really love blockbusters, but it’s kind of the opposite of the blockbuster, where you really enjoy them and you don’t have to do any work. The idea of the shadow narrative is that you give a space for the audience to have a dialogue with the work and to question.

SIG: How do you create that space?

Director Cate Shortland

Director Cate Shortland

CS: I think every time you want to answer a question, you stop yourself. Every time you want to sew up a scene, every time you feel you want to complete something, you don’t. You make things have clarity and you interrogate the work so that the audience is not confused, but you don’t cement the audience into a box and say, 'These are the good guys. These are the bad guys, and this is what you have to think.'

SIG: My understanding is you are not fluent in German.

CS: I can’t speak any German.

SIG: And the book is written in English, but the film is almost entirely in German. Why was that an important choice for you?

CS: Because I’ve seen films that are set in other countries and there’s this kind of colonization of English happening, and it never quite rings true to me. If I want any sense of truth, as soon as they start speaking English, it just flies out the window. There’s a scene with American soldiers, and I kept thinking, 'So our children would be speaking English, and then they’d encounter these American soldiers and they’d be speaking English.' How would you play that scene? It would have been absolutely ludicrous.

SIG: When writing in a language that’s not their mother tongue, writers sometimes say that having distance from the words opens up the way they think about storytelling. Did you experience that as a director?

CS: The best part of it was, you get so bogged down in diction. I can be fairly autocratic, and on this film, I couldn’t be. I had to let the actors have so much freedom. I didn’t know the order of the words sometimes, so I had to just watch and see if I was feeling something. And if I was really feeling something, I knew it was really working. I had no control over the nuance of it. I had control over the nuance of the emotion. I think that was quite liberating.

SIG: There’s a stark lyricism to Seiffert’s writing. How did that impact the way you shot the film?

CS: Her writing is very fragile in a way. But at the same time, there’s a really tough spine there. So the way she put the words together almost dictated the cinematography. We had fantastic designers on the film, but then we’d go in and shoot in these beautiful houses, and we’d shoot like a documentary. Her writing is so immediate and so fresh that to labor over it would have felt pretentious because that’s the exact opposite of how Rachel has written.

SIG: Did you work closely with her during the process?

CS: She just gave me a lot of courage. I was scared of being apologist. I had cups of tea with her a few times in London, and she’d say to me that she was terrified too when she wrote the book. And you just have to keep searching.

One thing that really helped me is that I did workshops with people who had been in Deutscher Mädel, the German Girls’ League, and Hitler Youth. [They talked about] the real love, really passionate love for Hitler, as if he was a member of the family. They spoke about that. And lack of empathy. You had no empathy -- that was really stripped away from you.

SIG: How did they move past that?

CS: There was one beautiful man, who didn’t speak the whole day, and then at the end he said that when Hitler died, it was like his world ended, and he had to rebuild himself as a human being. I thought about him the whole shoot. He just spoke about how he loved him more than his family -- more than himself. That really helped me.

He became a really fantastic man in the GDR. He was a leader of the trade union movement, so he helped so many people. But he said it took him about four years. He was about sixteen at the end of the war, and he almost had a breakdown because that was all he knew.

SIG: At this point after living with her for so long, do you find Lore to be an empathetic character?

CS: With my first film, "Somersault," I almost asked the audience to be inside of Heidi. With Lore, I always knew the audience was going to sit slightly outside of her because you battle with her as you rightly should because she’s a child of National Socialism, and she’s a child of indoctrination. You can’t ask for sympathy. You can’t ask for empathy. If she gets it, it’s by chance.

SIG: Do you have hope for her?

CS: Oh yeah. I have massive hope for her. It’s based on a true story. Lore is Rachel Seiffert’s mum. It’s based on her life. Of course there are big differences, but Rachel’s mother had to walk through the Black Forest with her siblings across Germany to Hamburg. I know what happened to Rachel’s mother. She moved to Oxford and became really involved in the peace movement and is an incredibly open woman -- a great humanist. I have real hope for Lore. Lore’s daughter wrote The Dark Room.