April 3 2013 12:00 AM

Australian drama gives the Holocaust a new set of victims: Nazi children

Courtesy photo

Nazis are easy narrative villains — the systematic slaughter of 11 million people really puts them in their own class of evil. Consequently, in literature and film, it’s a bold move to depict them as anything less than cold-blooded monsters. Sure, they started out as human beings, with hopes, fears and families, but what film producer looking for an ROI wants to play sympathy for the Fhrer? You’d be better off making a TV show about a young Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter. 

And so Australian writer/director Cate Shortland ventures into dangerous territory with her drama “Lore,” featuring a clan of Aryan orphans left to fend for themselves after dear old “vater,” an SS higher up, slithers off to the hills to escape his war crimes and mom is hauled off for association. Think of them as the anti-von Trapps.  

Saskia Rosendahl plays the title character, the pubescent eldest sibling who’s put in charge of getting the other four children to grandma’s house 500 miles away. On foot. With the Allies closing in. And a screaming baby in tow. If those stakes aren’t high enough, they also ally themselves with a seedy stranger who definitely has his rape-like gaze set on young Lore. Guten Himmel! 

Shortland’s camera revels in uncomfortable close-ups, even more uncomfortable sexual groping and in gooey textures — there are many shots of fingers and toes scrunching themselves into mud and oily water. The camera also takes some inventive, and ironically playful, maneuvers, tilting sideways and even upside down to capture some provoking moments. But the tone here is dead serious — death, disease and vermin torment the children for nearly every step of their arduous trek. 

Shortland’s script, loosely based on the British novel, “The Dark Room,” avoids easy answers, plopping viewers into the middle of a scene and leaving them on their own to figure out what’s going on. Did we just witness lovemaking or a rape? Was that woman bleeding from a self-abortion or menses? It also plays loose and fast with time, freely skipping through parts of the trip so that one moment Lore and her siblings are hauling a cumbersome stroller through thick mud, the next they’re riding comfortably in a train. The effect is disorienting, but not disengaging. 

The performances are across-the-board solid. Rosendahl, who won an award for Best Young Actor at Australia’s version of the Oscars last year, carries the movie like a pro. She’s in nearly every frame, and watching her character’s transformation from pampered debutante to wild-eyed survivalist is a triumph of acting. Kai-Peter Malina, as their unreadable pseudo-protector Thomas, keeps you guessing, as he flip-flops between menacing and benevolent. Heck, even the baby had me convinced he was starving — enough crying already, somebody give that kid a teat!  

“Lore”’s central conceit is the unfairness of children bearing the sins of their parents, but in genocide, the film seems to say, there is no innocence. More than once, Lore must face the photos of skeletal death camp victims, and her reserve is chilling. Poetically, an early scene shows the father burning his incriminating files, ostensibly victims of Nazi experimentation. As the ashes of the dead fall on Lore, there seems to be a stirring inside that begins her awakening, but it takes the full length of the movie to see where that arc leads. And it’s definitely a trip worth taking.