Lore, written and directed by Cate Shortland, is the story of five German refugee children traveling light from Bavaria to Hamburg

The sins of the fathers are most definitely visited upon the children in Lore, a new World War II drama opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday March 1. “Oh, no”, I hear you moan, “not another movie about World War II. Surely its admittedly significant cinematic possibilities have long since been exhausted?”, and on most days I might agree with you. This film, however, offers something genuinely different.

Taking its title not from the word meaning ‘a body of traditions and knowledge on a subject or held by a particular group’ but from the first name of its lead character, Lore is the story of five German refugee children traveling light from Bavaria to Hamburg. Their parents arrested by Allied troops (Vati has been a member of the Waffen SS, while Mutti simply appears to be a loyal Nazi), the children are under orders to seek refuge with their grandmother over five hundred miles to the north.

Left without a responsible adult chaperone, it’s up to teenage Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) to make sure younger sister Liesel, twin brothers Günter and Jürgen, and little baby Peter (Nick Holaschke, in a genuinely impressive if predictably infantile performance) survive the arduous trek across treacherous terrain and through three different occupation zones (American, British, and Russian).

Short on cash, the children are forced to exchange treasured family heirlooms (including their mother’s wedding ring) for food and water. Lacking identification papers, the quintet find themselves desperately dodging Allied patrols, sleeping under the stars (or in bombed out, corpse strewn ruins), and subsisting on whatever scraps they find along the way. A chance encounter with older refugee Thomas (Kai Malina) temporarily provides them a degree of security — but his stoic silence conceals secrets perhaps best left undisturbed.

Australian writer-director Cate Shortland’s screenplay deftly manages to make the children of the Third Reich believable and sympathetic without making excuses for their sometimes questionable behavior. Lore finds Jews repellant, and when confronted with pictures of Holocaust victims struggles to accept them as evidence of anything more than perfidious Allied propaganda; her brothers’ predilection for patriotic songs suggests they’ve probably spent considerable time around Hitler Youth campfires.

The film is beautifully acted, with especial kudos to Rosendahl, whose utterly convincing performance is more than worthy of an Academy Award nomination. Malina is also memorable, Thomas’ affectless air of mystery stirring memories of similar characters in Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child.

I do have one complaint about Lore. While cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s work is generally impressive (though a few scenes disturbingly echo The Sound of Music), he’s clearly beholden to that curse of contemporary filmmaking, the handheld camera. This is a film that would benefit from long static shots, gentle dollies, and slow pans, but instead Arkapaw’s camera wiggles about aimlessly, presumably in an effort to convey realism and urgency. It’s a minor distraction, but I do wish 21st-century filmmakers would rely on it a lot less than they do.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...