Cate Shortland interview
After making a name for herself and her soft, poignant and emotional brand of filmmaking in 2004’s Somersault, Cate Shortland finds herself on the cusp of the national release of her second film, Lore. With a protagonist of a similar age but this time dealing with a completely different context, Lore tells the story of a teenage girl of Nazi parents in the months immediately following the end of World War II.
Charged with the care of her four younger siblings, Lore must lead the youngsters across Germany to the safety of her aunt’s house. Along the way they encounter the mysterious Thomas who offers to help; he is simultaneously attractive and repelling to Lore in light of his status in her eyes as a Jew. Sensual and beautifully ambiguous, Lore examines the way that we encounter and perceive historical truths, and how we reconcile ourselves with a troubling, confused or abhorrent collective past.
Last week, Cate spoke to us about her film, the process of its creation, and the ramifications it has for Australia and our history.
What attracted you to the story of Lore? The Dark Room, the book on which your film is based, is a set of three stories. What was it about the story involving Lore that particularly interested you?
Well I actually argued with the producer, Paul Welsh, because I wanted to do the last story.
What was the last story about?
The last story was set in the 90s, and it was about a guy that was...thirty something maybe? He was married to a Turkish woman in Berlin, and he discovers that his grandfather was in the Einzatzgruppen, which was the mobile death squads in Belarus, and then he goes to Belarus to find out what had happened. It’s fascinating, it’s great, but it’s really a much easier story because...he’s the good guy, he goes to Belarus and he meets people, and they’re obviously the bad guys...it’s not that much different to what’s been made before. I see that now in retrospect. I think what I was really frightened of with this film, was that we don’t have that division. This one is the toughest one in the book, because the audience has to just look at these people as human beings, and make up their own mind. There’s a big space in the film that we left for the audience to think...we weren’t giving them easy answers.
How did you deal with that ambiguity? How did you put yourself in the mind frame of these five or six very frightened children whose parents were instrumental in the Nazi campaign, and who now are so confused?
First of all, we did a lot of research, and I looked at people who had been in Hitler Youth. I had a meeting in Berlin, and we got all these very elderly people that had been children or teenagers in Bund Deutscher Mädel which is League of German Girls, and what we did was we spoke to them really honestly and without judgement and created this environment where they could just talk about what had happened, how they’d felt. There was really strange nostalgia, from a lot of them, because of the music and the dancing. The more we spoke to them, what had really affected them was that, it was just drummed into them that you shouldn’t have empathy.
It’s such a seminal age for children as well. But your portrayal is not nostalgic in any way...did you strive for the portrayal to be very real? Both Somersault and this film are very sensual; you get a real sense of what it’s like to be in the environment that’s on screen.
Adam Arkapaw, the cinematographer and I, knew that the reason the book worked, and the script, in a way, was because, you don’t see her [Lore] first off as a Nazi. And that’s why I put her in the first scene in the bath.
Yeah right, she’s a girl first.
She’s a young girl and she’s hearing her sister playing hopscotch. Franz Rodenkirchen who was my script editor, he also said it’s one of the few times in the film where she’s really, completely alone.
Because it is very much a story about her, as well, as much as it’s about anything else, I think.
It is. I think it’s about her. I really do. I think her trajectory is really clear. She starts off thinking she understands the world, and she never questions it, and that that world’s about sacrifice, and love of the fatherland and love of Hitler, and discipline. And then she realises that everything she believed in is false and, at the end she’s just filled with questions: “who am I? What is my country, what is my life going to be?”
Do you think that the relationship between her and Thomas is also very much from her perspective?
He’s very dark, you see him from the angle that she would see him...as an outsider.
In the book, it’s really beautiful how Rachel [Seiffert, author of The Dark Room] just focuses on bits of his skin, and the blue veins beneath. We saw him as a really gothic character, and he’s really unknowable, you don’t know what he is. We didn’t know. Even, as writers, we were always struggling with: “is he telling the truth?” It’s a fascinating character.
What do you think attracts you to that sort of ambiguity in stories and leaving things open-ended and having emotions that aren’t necessarily clear all the time?
I really love, when I watch films, when I have the space after the film to dream about it. When you get into a film which gets under your skin, it stays with you, and there’s that beautiful thing of it just becoming a part of your consciousness.
I have heard you discuss in interviews surrounding this film the way that people in Germany have really made an effort to deal with and commemorate the atrocities that have occurred in the country’s past, and how this has interesting implications when you look at the way that Australia has dealt with it’s history and some of the atrocities that have occurred. What do you think needs to change?
I have a son who is turning 18, and I’ve got a four-year-old daughter. I don’t want them to grow up how I grew up, which was feeling fear which bred...in me it didn’t breed hatred, but I think in our society it has in some ways.
Fear of what?
The unknown. For instance, some Indigenous guys came to my primary school. They did a dance in the school hall and they threw boomerangs on the school oval. I didn’t cry...but a lot of the kids did, because they were so frightened. In high school we had one Aboriginal boy in our school, and he was called "Choc" until he was in Year 9, when he said: “I want to be called Raymond.” I know things have changed, and I know that we put, as a country, a lot of money into trying to work with Indigenous communities in terms of education, employment and health, but I think until we work on a really primal level in mainstream white Australia, I’m talking mainstream Australia, that, we’re not embracing wholly the joy and, everything that we could get by joining together as one nation.
I just don’t know why there’s this constant shutting down. And I really believe—because I see it in young people that I meet—that they don’t want that kind of country anymore. Germany has committed so many atrocities, and they are so ashamed of that, and there’s so much grief and anger about what’s happened, but they’re really proud in Berlin of the changes that have been made—and as a community, they can stand really tall. The young people can stand really tall, and I don’t think the young people here can. I think that that is a real grief.
It’s a recognition thing as well. In Berlin you get so much of a strong sense that that confused past and acknowledgment of loss really enriches the city.
Yeah, I know. It enriches the society and that’s what I want here! Imagine how much we would be enriched. And we sort of need a level of commitment from everybody about: “ok, let’s make this next 50 years a time of coming together and creating space within our cities to have those spaces that we’re all going to feel incredibly proud of.” I mean in Berlin those spaces are one of the most visited spaces in the world. One of the biggest holocaust museums is next to the Brandenburg Gate.
The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe?
Yeah. That would be like putting a memorial next to the Opera House, and that is so far out of our psyche.
I know! It’s almost ludicrous to think that that would even happen... and it’s awful that that’s the case.
And I really think, how much pride every Australian would get from that, and how enriched we would all feel from that, and how healing that would be.
Cate Shortland’s Lore is in cinemas now.