Cate Shortland interview: ‘I was almost throwing up’

The director talks about her harrowing film set in post-war Germany

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The Australian writer-director Cate Shortland made her astonishing debut in 2004 with ‘Somersault’. It made stars of actors Abbie Cornish (‘Sucker Punch’) and Sam Worthington (‘Avatar’). Now she’s back with a haunting German-language film, ‘Lore’, set at the end of World War II.

It’s the story of the children of Nazism. Saskia Rosendahl is Lore, the 14-year-old daughter of an SS officer. When the allies imprison her parents, Lore travels through war-ravaged Germany with her little brothers and sisters to her grandmother’s house. It’s based on one story in the Booker Prize-nominated collection ‘The Dark Room’ by Rachel Seiffert.

It's been a while since ‘Somersault’. What have you been up to?

‘I went and lived in South Africa for two-and-a-half years. We also adopted two children. We were living in Berlin for a couple of years. I didn’t know whether I wanted to make films anymore. But coming back and doing this film was an incredible experience.’

Were you nervous about telling a story from a German perspective?

‘I was terrified. I knew we had to get it as right as we could, because you’re not dealing with the victims. You’re dealing with the other side. You have to do some soul searching.’

You researched the film in Germany. How important was that?

‘That experience changed everything. It was difficult. I was on my own and doing the research for this film was harrowing. But I’ve always had fantastic assistance from the German people. A beautiful guy at one of the universities would gather together as many elderly people as he could who had been in Hitler Youth or Bund Deutscher Mädel [The League of German Girls] to do workshops with. So I was working from truth.’

How open were former members of Hitler Youth?

‘They weren’t. If you speak to elderly Germans now, often they’ll say: “Oh, Hitler had some great ideas.” It’s that cliché. Or they’d say that it’s a good idea badly implemented. But then you’d speak to young Germans and they’re full of openness, really trying to deal with it and interrogate what happened.’

At the start of the film, Lore is her father’s daughter. She believes in Nazism.

‘She’s a product of indoctrination. There’s a beautiful saying by Elie Wiesel [Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor]. He says: “The children of murderers are not murderers. They’re children.”’

But you don’t hold back from showing Lore’s prejudice. There’s a horrible scene where she looks away in disgust from a crippled boy.

‘We just wanted to make her as honest as possible. You just have to write the character without judgement. She hates Jews. She thinks disabled people are leeches. My son is disabled, so for me it was really great to just deal with it head on and look at it honestly. And not try and dilute it.

‘We are all bystanders. We all turn our faces when we see something terrible on the street, me included. And National Socialism is that magnified by a 100 million percent. It does not take me much to think I could be her. All the clichés now about Islam. All the generalising about refugees. All of that stuff is not too far away.’

One reason Lore starts to see through what she’s been taught is that she falls in love with a Jewish boy. How important was the love story?

‘I don’t think I would have done the film if it didn’t have some kind of really strong relationship at the core of it. Because I loved the whole idea of it exploring erotica and its connection to death and also her growing desire for this boy, who she’s been told is the abject other. I just loved that idea of it completely opening her up to humanity.’

You’ve lived in Berlin. Do you speak German?

‘No. I’ve got really terrible German.’

How much of a barrier was that?

‘The first few days I was almost throwing up. I just thought: I’m going to fuck this. But in a way it was liberating. Say, for instance, if I’m watching how you're drinking, or the way you hold your hand. I look at you and I think: Do I believe it? Do I believe you? And I really look inside you.’

How did you find the actress Saskia Rosendahl who plays Lore?

‘We looked at 300 girls. I dismissed Saskia in the first week. I saw a photo of her. Because she was so flawless and such a porcelain doll, I didn’t think that she would have the strength of character somehow. I judged her. And then the casting director brought her back in about three weeks later and she was one of the most powerful actors I’ve ever worked with.’

You’ve picked winners before. Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington have gone on to do amazing things after ‘Somersault’.

‘They did all right! I’m working with Sam at the moment on a TV project. And it’s funny, he’s exactly the same. He’s just gorgeous. The most down to earth person. With any actor you’re just looking for truth.’

‘Somersault’ was a coming of age film. Are you drawn to stories about teenagers?

‘No. In Rachel’s book there are three novellas. I wanted to do the last story, which is about a 35-year-old guy. But the producers convinced me that we had do this one.’

What appealed about the other story?

‘It was far more redemptive and absolutist. You had the good guy, a young teacher in contemporary Germany, searching for the truth about his grandfather. This one, I read it and was like: Oh my God. Especially because I’m Jewish and my husband’s Jewish. It was a bloody challenge at every level.’

Read our review of ‘Lore’, which opens in UK cinemas on Feb 22.


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