Cate Shortland’s second film is in a language she does not speak, but to tell a story about Germany’s soul, she insisted on full immersion for her cast
‘IT WAS really terrifying,” says Cate Shortland, referring to her new film, Lore. Considering it’s the Australian writer and director’s first project since her debut, Somersault, marked her out as a bold new voice on the world cinema stage (and launched the careers of Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington), you might think her fear stemmed from returning to directing after eight years.
Really, though, it was based on Lore’s difficult subject matter. The film was adapted from one of three interlinked stories in British novelist Rachel Seiffert’s Man Booker nominated The Dark Room. Like the book, it’s an attempt to examine German complicity in the Holocaust from a German point-of-view – in this case, that of the 14-year-old daughter (newcomer Saskia Rosendahl) of an SS officer. The story follows her as she traverses the war-ravaged German countryside, trying to get her younger siblings to the safety of their grandmother’s house after their parents abandon them.
Shortland’s film is full of understated lyricism and haunting imagery, and offers a complex portrait of innocence corrupted, without making excuses for the characters’ anti-Semitic beliefs.
Despite this, though – and despite the literary pedigree of its source material – the very fact that film ends up asking more questions than it answers ensures its premise remains contentious. With the possible exception of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Lore stands alone in its desire to explore the German national psyche directly.
“That was part of the appeal,” says Shortland, who started working on the film six years ago. “There was a lot of discussion in the media about German perpetrators talking about their victimisation. So I was incredibly aware of this terrible line we were walking and was terrified we’d make an apologist film.”
Shortland is a convert to Judaism and is married to a filmmaker – Tony Krawitz – with a German-Jewish heritage, but it took a discussion with her German-Jewish mother-in-law to allay her fears about making the film.
“She read the script and then we sat down and spoke about it, and she said, ‘They’re just human beings. And human beings do atrocious things. And we’re still doing atrocious things. You have to do the film.’ So I’ve had really wonderful support from within the Jewish community.”
That was important, Shortland says, because she didn’t feel she could chase that support. Instead she focused on capturing the essence of what was in the book, and did lots of research into the Hitler Youth and the children of the SS. “You have to go off the real people. You couldn’t make up some romantic bullshit to try and garner emotional support from anybody.”
What gave Lore more authenticiy was Shortland’s decision to shoot it in German. Though it began life with its Scottish producer Paul Welsh – who Shortland first met when she premiered Somersault at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2004 – she didn’t want to make an English-language version of book.
“I had to fight for it to be in German,” says Shortland, who doesn’t speak the language, so had to rely on her German crew, her editor and the dramaturg she had with her during rehearsals and on set to keep her right.
“Whenever I watch a film and it’s set in Europe, but the dialogue is in English, I always have to make a leap to believe it. I didn’t want my actors to have to come at it from a place of falseness; I wanted them to be able to totally immerse themselves in the emotion and the truth of it.”
The German press certainly approved. The film won the critics’ prize at the Hamburg Film Festival, and Shortland was delighted when local journalists began interviews in German, not realising she couldn’t speak a word.
She reckons German audiences might have a trickier time of it given the way the film personalises the responsibility for the Holocaust. “They always talk in Germany of the ‘regime’: ‘the regime did this’, or ‘the regime did that’. And what this film does is say: ‘my grandfather did this’, or ‘my father did this’ or my ‘mother did this’. It’s inside the family and trying to deal with it on a personal level.”
That Shortland pores over every aspect of the film is one reason she’s only made two features thus far in her career. “I was attached to other films, one of which was in the States, but unless I lie awake at night and really think about the material and have images floating through my head about how to do it, then I can’t make a film because I’m not going to do a good job and it’s going to be a big waste of money. I only want to do stuff I’m addicted to.”
She also took a break to spend time with her adopted kids. “We adopted our son when he was 11, so we had a massive amount of catching up to do. We were living in Africa at the time and so I could have made a film, or I could have bonded with my son. I chose my son.
“He was actually my video screen operator on the film,” she adds. “He’s now 18 so he was by my side for the entire shoot.”
Consequently, she likes the way things have worked out. Though she confesses she’d like to earn a bit more money, she’s not a careerist; she doesn’t go in for “industry talk” and scorns attempts to analyse the health of Australian cinema based on recent international successes such Snowtown, which she loved, and Animal Kingdom.
“Directors and producers and writers, we just make stuff and sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not. This whole idea of some bullshit ‘industry’ is a total fabrication.”
To this end, while she has some directing projects in development and some writing work on the horizon, the chances of her going to Hollywood seem increasingly unlikely.
“I don’t think I need to make a Hollywood blockbuster to be happy. I’m happy now.”
• Lore screens at Glasgow Film Theatre, tomorrow, and Cineworld, Glasgow, on Saturday, as part of the Glasgow Film Festival, and is then on selected release from 22 February.