We’ve become accustomed—some would say inured—to seeing characters living like fugitives in stories about WWII’s devastation of Europe. Indeed, upon meeting the protagonist of Cate Shortland’s drama, there’s every reason to think that Hannelore Dressler (Saskia Rosendahl, compelling), Lore for short, is another screen heroine trying to stay one step ahead of the Gestapo’s genocide industry. Only something feels strange, as this young woman and her siblings are instructed by their mother (Lardi) to flee the household. We soon find out why: These are not persecuted Jewish children but the well-heeled offspring of an SS officer, who are avoiding Allied troops as news spreads of Der Führer’s death. The longer these Hitler youth run wild through the Black Forest to “Omi’s house” like Grimm fairy-tale moppets, the more Lore’s feral desperation brings out her blatant anti-Semitism. We have seen the enemy—and we are supposed to sympathize with her.
It’s a bold move, testing the audience’s emotional pressure points, as the still-nazified Lore, her kin and a vulnerable infant traipse across the film’s postapocalyptic Germany Year Zero landscape. And like the Aussie director’s coming-of-age debut, Somersault (2004), Shortland’s sophomore effort has a knack for using abstract, claustrophobic close-ups—a stubbed cigarette, dripping water, ants on a corpse—to emphasize moments of beauty and horror as its female lead negotiates a brutal world of wolves. (With a fawn-as-innocence metaphor to boot!) After a while, however, Lore’s horror show starts to feel less like a means to an end than the end itself: What starts as a flipped survival tale turns into historical tragisploitation that wallows in its slog of endless suffering.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear