DANIEL ABATAN on a film with too much subtlety, and not enough empathy.

Cate Shortland daniel abatan Dark Room lore Rachel Seiffert

The Independent film that does nothing very badly and executes all of its technical components with complete competence often gets a lot of recognition. Particularly in cities that hold film festivals. Particularly in Europe. Many of these films are ruined by a pained consciousness to avoid the less subtle inventions of filmmaking, forgetting that it was such moments that drew us to the cinema in the first place. Lore is in danger of becoming a part of this movement. Adapted from a story contained within Rachel Seiffert’s 2001 novel Dark Room, Cate Shortland’s WWII drama, in which muddy-frocked children drift sleepily through a dark wood and arrive home at Grandmother’s just in time for tea, is closer to a Grimm’s Fairy tale than the Holocaustic terrain of Seiffert’s novel.

Our eyes follow the voyage of German teenage Hannelore and her four aryan siblings as they tiptoe across a 500 mile wasteland of a country devastated by war and poverty. While a photo of a Nazi official is buried alongside a familiar photo of the children’s father, and a small china figurine that stays with Hannelore throughout the journey is eventually desecrated, we are forced to remember that the past cannot be forgotten.

Flickering in an uneasy middle ground between war and peace, Lore remembers the muffled tones of Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963) and it is the voyeuristic quality of the cinematography, as well as the strange quality of sound it shares with the Bergman, that become its most effective components. Sexual voyeurism is something which the cinema has inexplicably bound to Nazi Germany. There was a good amount of it in Stephen Daldry’s oscar winning film The Reader (2008) and even more in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s opus The Lives of Others (2006). In Lore, however, the entire project feels somewhat voyeuristic. There are Adam Arkapaw’s (Animal Kingdom 2010) haunting visuals, but also the film’s inability to allow us any meaningful empathy with its characters.

Shortland’s transition from the page is a beautifully subtle rendering of a subject so often dirtied with mountainous heaps of faceless corpses, and it will no doubt leave some viewers unsure whether they have seen something very moving, or anything at all. Newcomer Saskia Rosendahl’s Hannelore, whom we often hear whistling or humming, is an image of Barrie’s Wendy marching amongst the Hitler youth, and she might even be another fragment of Lore lifted straight from a Bergman picture. Rosendahl herself, quivering delicately between youth and womanhood, artfully commands the role of a German teenager duelling with guilt, fear, responsibility and, of course, sexual curiosity. But we are not made to care for her before we see her suffer, and as a result of that we remain unmoved by her trauma.

Eventually the strength of Lore rests in its ability to allow a small and contained unit speak for the silent suffering of an entire nation, and while the mood is largely penetrating, neither the weight of the Germans or the Allies is truly felt. Forces which might have been the focus of Lore are but disembodied gunshots whose consequences are horrifying, but whose absence nevertheless leaves us with a colossal journey across the moral canvas of a great western power. A power that, at times, feels as though it has been reduced to a squabble of children playing at ring-a-ring-o’ roses amongst a small patch of trees.

Only the odd wide angle sweep of the Black Forest and the rogue hint of destruction enforce the scale of the film; most of what we experience finds its way to us through a selection of alienating closeups. We spend far too much time looking at a section of Saskia Rosendahl’s ankle or at a blown up baby’s lip pressed to a harrowed breast. The narrative makes no further advances with familiarisation and the characters are never much more to us than outsiders. At times, the sense that we are watching something that was not meant to be seen provokes an inkling of curiosity, perhaps because history has forbidden it to us. But eventually we reach the unavoidable realisation that this is aroused not because Lore is secretive or provocative, but rather because there is little that we can take from it.