In the spring of 1945, German front collapses and the Allied forces take control over Hitler’s country. With her Nazi parents imprisoned, 16-year-old Lore (Saskia-Sophie Rosendahl) is left in charge of her four young siblings. Embarking on a journey across the devastated country, the children struggle to survive. And Lore has to learn to trust a person whom she had always been told was the enemy.

A formidable piece of storytelling.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Cate Shortland’s second feature was not at Cannes this year. Her debut, Somersault, had premiered there in Un Certain Regard, back in 2004; this one had been tipped for selection, perhaps even in Competition. Its omission now seems especially curious, given both the lack of female filmmakers in this year’s lineup (the official reason: none had films ready to submit), and the extraordinary achievement it represents.

As a maker of images, Shortland is freakishly gifted.

While on the surface an unconventional choice for a follow-up—a German-language WWII tale, adapted from an episode in Rachel Seiffert’s bestselling novel The Dark RoomLore is in fact very much of a piece with Somersault, being another tale of female innocence lost. Watching, you sense that Shortland is fascinated by a single thing: the moment of adolescence at which childhood ends and a deeper (that is, sexual) identity manifests. As a result, her characters oscillate between childish self-absorption and adult yearning, at odds with themselves and the world. Their behaviour aberrant, capricious, frequently self-abnegating.

This time, however, the child is burdened with children of her own. (Unsurprisingly, Shortland has herself become a mother in the intervening years.) After their parents vanish, sucked into the vortex of retribution that followed the death of the Führer, 15-year-old Lore—short for 'Hannelore’—must shepherd her younger brothers and sister across the various zones into which post-war Germany has been divided, to the safety of a grandmother’s house (in the forest, naturally—this being a bleak kind of fairy-tale) outside of Hamburg.

The daughter of an SS officer, and a faithful product of the Hitlerjungend, right down to her Aryan beauty, Lore is resentful of her charges, wary of emotional attachment, and reflexively anti-Semitic. As played (superbly) by screen debutante Saskia Rosendahl, she is, to say the least, a complicated screen heroine. That she emerges as a sympathetic figure is but one of this film’s coups; the other—bound to be more controversial—is its even-handed treatment of ordinary Germans, too loyal to the idea of Germany to question the country’s descent into barbarism.

As a maker of images, Shortland is freakishly gifted. Like Scotland’s Lynne Ramsay, another visually prodigious filmmaker who seemed to arrive, fully-formed, from her very first shorts, she seems impatient with, perhaps even bored by, the demands of conventional narrative. Her plots are instead accumulative: a succession of individual images and sensations—moments—which coalesce gradually into meaning.

Working this time with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (who also shot Animal Kingdom and Snowtown), she favours shallow-focus shots and super-saturated textures. A shot of Lore lying on a forest floor—the mossy green grass, the rich, royal blue of her cardigan, Rosendahl’s own skin, shockingly, luminiously pale—is little short of breathtaking; likewise, a dreamlike image of hills in dawn light, almost erased by mist.

As such, Shortland may be accused of aestheticising historical tragedy, but she is nothing if not even-handed in her approach—pausing to examine, with an equal degree of rapt fascination, the soft cottony buds of a thistle, or burning cinders drifting through the air at dusk. Or the hole left in a man’s skull from a bullet wound.

This last led, at the screening I attended, to murmurs of disquiet from certain members of the audience, presumably annoyed that this vision of the dog days of the Second World War had been disturbed by images of actual violence. Which is good. Beautiful, it may be, but it is by no means a bourgeois film. Like Lore herself—fierce, defiantly unsocialised—it is a rebuke to notions of middle-class propriety, as well as a formidable work in its own right, by one of the best and most distinctive filmmakers this country has ever produced.

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1 hour 44 min
In Cinemas 20 September 2012,