‘Every second is history, every moment is history.’ Cate Shortland on LORE

Cate Shortland (centre with notebook) on location in Germany for LORE.

The first thing you notice about Cate Shortland’s German language feature Lore is its stunning physical beauty. Each moment seems to vibrate off the screen with living, sensuous beauty. Whether it’s wet hair dripping down pale young shoulders, sunlight filtering through forest treetops, or trembling fingers stroking an SS badge on a soldier’s uniform, each  image is intimate, personal, and yes, gorgeous. Even when the story itself is painful or ugly. The viewer is reminded of Shortland’s first feature, Somersault (2004), a film so intimately, unashamedly female and sensuously pretty that some critics failed to see its intelligence, and expressed outrage when Somersault claimed a record-breaking 13 AFI Awards in 2004.

It’s unlikely anyone will fail to see the intelligence and seriousness of Lore, which was announced last week as Australia’s official entry into the Best Foreign Film category in the 2013 Academy Awards.

Cate Shortland, who studied fine arts and history before she went on to receive a graduate diploma in directing from AFTRS in 2000, is unpretentious and humble when she explains her philosophy on beauty: “When I’m making films, I just get really bored if I’m not excited by the image, so I wouldn’t even bother to shoot something that I didn’t find exciting in some way. It’s just how I work. But it’s certainly not like that when I’m watching other people’s films. For example, I watched The Descendants the other night, and I actually really loved it, and what I loved about it is the simplicity of how it works. [Making films beautiful] is just my personal way, the way I work, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the opposite way of working. On Lore, [the cinematographer] Adam Arkapaw also has a very strong visual instinct, and so did Silke Fischer, the production designer, so that was a very good mix.”

Make no mistake, the facts of the story depicted in Lore (based on Rachel Seiffert’s novel The Dark Room) are not pretty, and for all its visual pleasures, the tale is one of devastation. Teenage protagonist Hannelore ‘Lore’ (Saskia Rosendahl), the child of Nazi officials who’ve been imprisoned by the victorious Allies, begins to discover the ugly truth about her once-orderly world and the Aryan beliefs it rests upon. She’s forced to grow up quickly, taking her four younger siblings (including an unweaned baby brother) on a dangerous six-week 900km journey across disintegrating Germany to find safety with their grandmother in Hamburg.

Along the way the children meet up with Thomas (Kai Malina), a Jewish refugee from a death camp. There’s an attraction between the proudly Hitler-loving Lore, who is just coming into her sexual power, and the mysterious Thomas. Desire is mixed with racist revulsion, and complicated by the demands of survival, adding extra layers of tension to a journey that crosses vast distances, both physically and spiritually. It’s a WWII story we’ve never seen before.

When we meet for this interview, Shortland has just returned from Switzerland’s 2012 Locarno Film Festival, where Lore won the Audience Award. She’s doing a quick round of Australian publicity before heading off to Toronto, where Lore screens in Special Presentation. She’s  pleased with the way things are turning out for the film – especially for the young actors and crew involved, and she’s particularly gratified that the 8000-strong predominantly German speaking audience at Locarno loved the film so much that they endured the rain at the outdoor screening in order to see the film to its conclusion.

But festival acclaim and awards are nothing new for Shortland, whose lyrical short films, including Joy, Flowergirl and Pentuphouse marked her as a young director to watch in the late 1990s. Somersault screened in Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2004 before going on to sweep the AFI Awards and the IF Awards – among many others. And then, it seemed, Shortland went to ground. Her name appeared occasionally in television credits (as director for The Secret Life of Us, Bad Cop, Bad Cop and ABC telemovie The Silence, and most recently as writer of the ‘Rosie’ episode of The Slap), but it seemed as if she may never make another feature.

“I think I was overwhelmed after Somersault,” she says carefully. “And I really wanted to have a family and filmmaking wasn’t my first priority.” Shortland and her husband director Tony Krawitz (The Tall Man, Dead Europe) spent a number of years back in his homeland, South Africa, and have two adopted African children, now aged 17 and four. “We live in a tiny house in Marrickville [in Sydney’s inner west] and we have three tiny bedrooms and one kitchen/living space,” she says. “We’ve set up the wi-fi so it only works in that one tiny room and it’s great. We all live there together and we’re really close. That might not always be the case, but I hope it stays like that! We lived in Germany for eight months while we were making the film and my son Jonathan even worked on Lore as the video operator, so we’re all in it together.”

Cate Shortland, husband Tony Krawitz & their son Jonathan Shortland-Krawitz at the Sydney Film Festival premiere of LORE. Photograph by Cynthia Sciberras.

It’s not just family commitments, however, which have kept Shortland from the world of feature filmmaking. “I look at a director like Michael Winterbottom and I’m so impressed by him doing a film almost every year, and doing such a beautiful job on all of them, and they’re all such different projects. He’s a genius. And not to compare myself in any way to him, but I’m not like that. I’m just the opposite. Something has to be really under my skin before I really want to do it, and I only did Lore because I fell in love with it.”

There’s no question that an English-speaking Australian director would have to be truly passionate to take on a project like Lore – shooting in a country and in a language other than her own, covering vast outdoor territories and working with a German-speaking cast, many of whom were children. But she’d fallen in love with the complexity and intimacy of the story and its questions about what it meant to be the child of a perpetrator of terrible crimes against humanity.

Shortland was adamant that the actors needed to be speaking their native tongue. The script (co-written by Shortland and Robin Mukherjee, and translated by Elisabeth Meister) underwent numerous drafts and rewrites. “I did the last two drafts of the script and I changed it quite a lot from what it initially was, so I knew it really intimately, back to front,” she says. “Then we went to a German translator in Sydney and that also changed the dialogue. Certain situations also changed when we translated it, because it needed to feel real to German language and German culture.”

Lead actress Saski Rosendahl speaks fluent English but Shortland needed to undergo a more complex communication process with the younger actors.

Contrary to popular wisdom, Shortland actually found it easier working with the child actors than the adults. “With the children, I’d had three weeks with them in rehearsals. The younger kids don’t speak any English – or they speak really minimal English, but [lead actress] Saskia [Rosendahl] speaks quite fluent English. We had a dramaturg helping us, and because we were all really familiar with each other, that process was not as difficult as I would have imagined. With children you’re just looking for a really truthful performance. But it was when I was directing the adults that it was much more difficult, because I didn’t know them as well, and nerves come into play.”

Shooting predominantly outdoors, across five German territories, also sounds rather challenging. “In one way it was a nightmare, but in another way, it meant that we got this incredible shift in the landscape, because we shot from the Black Forest to the North Sea, tracing the real journey that the kids would have made.”

Shortland credits producer Liz Watts for suggesting they employ Australian director of photography, Adam Arkapaw. “Liz really encouraged me as she thought that having an Australian DP would be fundamental actually, to my being able to cope in such a –  I suppose it sounds clichéd – but in such a foreign environment. I remember her saying: ‘Just hearing that accent, Cate, will be a good thing, when you’re in a bit of a crisis.’ And she was completely right in that. She had worked with Adam on Animal Kingdom, which I really loved. And then I saw Snowtown and Snowtown for me was just so fresh in terms of what Justin Kurzel and Adam achieved. I was really excited to meet Adam. He brought so much to the film, an immeasurable amount to the film.”

Shortland was keen to shoot on 16mm. “They shot Snowtown on 16mm and I loved the look of that. I was really reticent to shoot this film on digital, because of the clean look of digital. I really wanted a film grain.”

Shortland and DOP Adam Arkapaw were keen to shoot on 16mm to achieve a film grain rather than the clean look of digital.

Other Australian names populate the credits of Lore, which is an Australian/German/UK co-production. Among them are editor Veronika Jenet, sound designer Sam Petty, dialogue editor Yulia Akerholt, gaffer Michael Adcock, key grip Glenn Arrowsmith and many others. As a co-production, each department is a mix of German and Australian crew, with key German roles including composer Max Richter, production designer Silke Fischer, costume designer Stefanie Bieker and makeup and hair supervisor Katrin Westerhausen.

This begs the question, how does the filmmaking process in Germany differ from the process here in Australia? “There are many aspects which are the same,” says Shortland. “Working with the different heads of department like the production designer and the costume designer was a similar process to what I’m used to because you’re working with artists, and you’re working from an instinctual point of view.  But the way that the crew work is quite different, because they have almost two First ADs [Assistant Directors]. They have one first AD that works with the director, and then they have one First AD that works with the [production] office and they’re both on set. And there always seems to be this conflict of interests. They’re all meant to work together, but there were so many chains of communication and… it felt slightly… it felt like in Australia, the process is more streamlined.”

Shortland is keen to point out the professionalism and tireless dedication of her German heads of department. “I made such beautiful friends with some of the people I worked with. I had all these ideas in my head that were pretty clichéd and I was pretty worried about working with the German Heads of Department, but the actual teams worked really hard, really, really hard and were really professional. It was just more the whole structure of the shoot seemed very odd at times. There were a lot of jokes going around about the war. Some of the Australians were always saying under their breath: ‘I know why we won the war!’ because they felt like they had their organisation down pat. It sounds very parochial and very nationalistic, but I do think our [Australian] film crews are really professional and very streamlined. We’re known for that, and when you see the way they do it in another culture you realise our crews work really efficiently and they do a hell of a lot.”

Numerous outdoor locations across Germany and  working with very young actors were just some of the challenges in shooting LORE.

Shortland is impressed however, with the way “Germany as a culture has really interrogated their history and the horrible, disgusting, inhuman things that happened in that period. They feel immense shame and horror about that. But the way they dealt with it, they can be really proud of, and that’s kind of what Australia hasn’t done. I feel really sad for us as a country, because I feel like we could benefit so much [from interrogating our history] and then there wouldn’t be this horrible anger and fear that 99% of the population have about our Indigenous population and Indigenous history.”

Asked what she’d like Australian audiences in particular to take away from the film, Shortland says: “If anybody watches the film, hopefully they might think a little bit about what history means as an active thing, rather than as a recessive thing that you put behind you; the idea that history is something that you’re actually living in, because every second is history, every moment is history.”

As for what’s next, Shortland is enjoying the writing process and the collaborative nature of television work, where the weight of the entire production isn’t on her shoulders. “I’ve been writing and I’m absolutely loving that. I’m loving that whole process. I love the writers’ room where you’re a team. That was what was so great about writing on The Slap, because we were really a tight-knit team and there was just so much support for each other as writers, and everybody shared their ideas.  Now I’m working with Matchbox again on Gallipolli and on another series they’re doing. It’s fun, we laugh a lot. I love collaborating with all these brainy people.”

Lore is released nationally in Australia on 20 September.

Lore: Fast Facts

  • Lore is an official Australian/German co-production – approximately 30% Australian, 60% German, 10% UK.
  • The shoot took place in Germany from 19 July 2011 – 14 September 2011. Locations included Gorlitz, Baden-Wurttemberg, the Black Forest region, Hessen and the Schleswig-Holstein region.
  • Post-production work was done in Sydney, with a total 14 weeks editing, 10 weeks sound editing and mixing. Visual FX were completed out of Glasgow, Scotland and the music was composed in Germany and recorded in the UK.
  • Lore is released in Australasia through Transmission Films and in Germany through Piffl Mediem Gmbh. The international Sales Agent is Memento Films International.
  • Lore  was announced as Australia’s official entry into the Best Foreign Film category in the 2013 Academy Awards.
  • Lore is one of the Feature Films in Competition for the 2nd AACTA Awards.

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A new kind of intimacy: Tony Krawitz, director of The Tall Man

Tony Krawitz

Tony Krawitz, writer and director of 'The Tall Man'.

Tony Krawitz is best known within the Australian film and television industry as the young South African-born writer and director of the acclaimed short feature Jewboy, a stunningly accomplished piece about a Chassidic taxi driver working in Bondi and experiencing a crisis of faith. The film premiered at Cannes and won three AFI Awards, including two for Krawitz himself – for Best Screenplay in a Short Film and Best Short Fiction Film (shared with Liz Watts). An AFTRS graduate, Krawitz has since been working predominantly in local television drama (including City Homicide, All Saints, The Silence and The Surgeon), but what’s putting him in the spotlight right now is his first foray into documentary, The Tall Man. Already, the film has premiered as an official selection at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, and has been announced as one of the four Nominees for the AACTA Award for Best Feature Length Documentary – and that’s all ahead of an Australian theatrical release on 17 November.

The Tall Man is produced by Darren Dale (company director of Blackfella Films, Australia’s premier Indigenous production company and long time producer for SBS) and based on the non fiction book by Chloe Hooper. It’s a sobering but gripping examination of the case of Cameron Doomadgee, an Indigenous man living on Palm Island in Far North Queensland, who on 19 November 2004 reportedly swore at a police officer, Senior Sargeant Chris Hurley, and 45 minutes later, lay dead in a police cell, with massive internal injuries likened to those of a fatal car crash victim. The outraged Palm Islanders rioted and burnt down the police station, but subsequent investigations never resulted in a conviction of the policeman. What they did result in, was a galvanising of the entire Queensland Police Force, who came out in support of their fellow officer, amidst accusations of collusion and mishandling of the case.

The Tall Man investigates these events and the legal case around them, but the focus is firmly on the people whose lives have been most affected by the tragedy – Doomadgee’s family, friends and the island’s community. In the interview below, Tony Krawitz talks about the process of gaining trust, exploring grief, and attempting to grapple with the paradox that Palm Island is both paradise and prison to those Indigenous people who live there.

AFI: Congratulations on your film’s nomination for Best Feature Length Documentary. One of the striking things about the film is its visual beauty despite the harshness of the story (and we should mention Director of Photography, Germain McMicking here). Can you talk about the look you were aiming for?

Tony Krawitz: The look came about organically through doing the research. Palm Island is just such a beautiful place. And yes, the story is such a sad tragic story that we thought it would be an interesting counterpoint to show the beauty. It’s kind of ironic that it looks like a picture postcard and yet something so bad happened that day. Also the film is so upsetting at times that we wanted to show the positive aspects of life on the island as well – those amazing kids and their grandparents, having karaoke nights and good times.

AFI: What was the significance of the scenes of a man on horseback that recur throughout the film? Are there a lot of horses on Palm Island?

Tony Krawitz: Yes, there are a lot of wild horses – maybe thousands on the island. We drove to the top of the mountain one day and there were about 50 horses up there, a whole big family of them. And some people keep them. Otherwise, they let the horses roam free and they know certain ones, and some afternoons after school kids just go and lasso a horse and go riding. So it’s got this great freedom to it. But in terms of structure, that guy riding on the horse symbolises the great sense of freedom about Cameron Doomadgee. The people who knew him describe him as quite a free spirited person.  He loved horse riding, and loved going to the neighbouring island and hunting and fishing for days at a time, and diving, and all those kinds of things. Seeing a man looking free on horseback just reminded me of Cameron and what I’d heard of him. It’s just that mix that people talk about on Palm Island – of being really free because it’s like country life, away from the city – and then feeling completely trapped because they are on an island, and feeling like they’re under the control of the police.

The Tall Man publicity still

Wild horses roam free on Palm Island - a place that is both paradise and prison. Image from 'The Tall Man'.

AFI: How closely did you follow the Chloe Hooper book upon which the film is based?

Tony Krawitz: I’m not sure how close it is anymore, because I know that book backwards. I’m a big fan of the book and the film is quite similar in a lot of ways – obviously the events are the same. The big difference is that Chloe was at a lot of the events, so in the book she’s describing being in the courtroom day by day, what each day is like, how people are feeling, and it’s happening in the present. Whereas in the film, all the people we’re interviewing are looking back at the events and commenting on those events. It’s in the past.  That’s one of the biggest differences. In my mind they complement each other.

AFI: What was the shooting schedule like for this film? How much time did you spend on Palm Island?

Tony Krawitz: I don’t remember exactly because we finished shooting at the end of last year. We went there about five times. We went there quite a lot. Sometimes we just went there so people could get to know us more and find out what we were doing. We filmed over at least a year.

AFI: Were people happy to talk to you? Were they glad this film was being made or were they difficult to win over?

Tony Krawitz: Everyone was happy, especially the family. I’m a whitey, so the company that hired me was an Indigenous film company, and they work obviously in Indigenous communities a lot. So everyone knew this was going to be a film made by Indigenous people, but with a white director on board. Most people just felt that nobody in the media had really spoken about Cameron as a person, with a life and a family, but that they’d just spoken about his death and the day that led up to that. They were really happy that the film would talk about those important events leading up to the tragedy and that day of his death, but that it would also be a celebration of his life.

Darren Dale producer of The Tall Man

'A man who needs four mobile phone batteries' - producer Darren Dale.

AFI:  Can you talk a little bit about your producer Darren Dale and how you came to be working with him?

Tony Krawitz: Darren and I met through mutual friends over the years and I’ve  known him through workshops with young Aboriginal filmmakers. So we’ve known each other for some time but we hadn’t worked together before. He just called me up one day and asked me if I was interested and gave me the book to read. He is quite extraordinary. He’s one of the busiest people I know.

AFI: His credits are quite extensive – including short films for Warwick Thornton and Beck Cole, and First Australians for SBS and producing the Message Sticks festival…

Tony Krawitz: He’s great. He needs four extra batteries for his mobile phone – especially when we were up in Palm Island! He was dealing with a lot. It was a really small crew and very hard work. But as much as it was a very tragic time, we also had an incredible time of being with the family who were just so gracious with us – inviting us to their house, taking us fishing, daily life stuff that wasn’t just about the filmmaking.

AFI: Had you been involved in documentary filmmaking before?

Tony Krawitz:  I made a short seven minute documentary at university, and then I researched a documentary that never got made. So I’ve always been interested in making documentaries, but this is the first long one I’ve made.

AFI: You’ve made a short feature and lots of television, but how was this particular film different from your other experiences as a director?

Tony Krawitz: It was really great actually. It’s quite a profound experience to have strangers tell you their stories and invite you into their homes. There’s a level of intimacy that’s quite different to working in fiction. With this particular story it was tough because you’re dealing with people’s grief. It’s not like the subject matter is really easy – you have to ask people really tough questions. But it was a privilege.

AFI: In past interviews you have spoken about how you grew up in South Africa and the situation of the Indigenous people in Queensland reminded you of apartheid South Africa. That’s a pretty strong criticism.

Cameron Doomadgee from The Tall Man documentary

Cameron Doomadgee as a young man (right, in Australian flag t-shirt), from Tony Krawitz's documentary 'The Tall Man'.

Tony Krawitz: Yes. That’s what Aboriginal people were saying to me too, so that’s not just me making it up. Also from reading Chloe’s book and talking to Aboriginal activists or people who have to deal with life in remote communities, it’s clear that Australia is a tough place for Indigenous people. For me as an outsider to it, it reminded me of apartheid. I grew up in a privileged position under apartheid, but I was back in South Africa recently for two years, which was really interesting. South Africa and Australia share a similar colonial history, and when you look at the history of a place like Palm Island, you discover that it was a bit like a penal colony. It was set up for recalcitrant natives in the 1920s, and people were in dormitories. When I was interviewing older people in the documentary, who grew up in the dormitories, you see that people are still living with the after-effects of colonialism and they’re on this island where they feel like they’re living under a police state. You can argue the actual specifics of apartheid and apartheid law and how it’s different to the situation of Indigenous people  – you can argue the nitty gritty of it – but the overall feeling that people have has striking similarities.

AFI: One of the points the film makes is the huge power of the police. And when the police collude, it’s very difficult to fight that, and whether you’re Aboriginal or white, you could be in that position of powerlessness.

Tony Krawitz: Yes, and that happens. In Far North Queensland it’s so common for Aboriginal people to talk about things like being pulled over by the police just because of the colour of their skin. The only people who wouldn’t talk to us for the documentary (apart from the police!) were Aboriginal people who were too scared to talk to us because they thought the cops might see them and beat them up one dark night! So that’s a real kind of fear up north.

AFI: Are you concerned about how the police will view the film?

Tony Krawitz: It will be interesting to see how the police react to it. We’re not uncovering new evidence. Everything in the film has already been spoken about. It’s not an investigative documentary in that sense, it’s more about going through the emotional side of the case. So we’re not trying to make [policeman] Chris Hurley out to be some kind of demon, just to show him as a flawed human being, as we’re all flawed human beings.

AFI: The sound design and the score for the film are really atmospheric, creating both a sense of beauty, sadness and menace. Sam Petty was the Sound Designer, and Antony Partos and David McCormack did the music. You’d worked with them before?

Tony Krawitz: I’ve worked with Sam a lot. But not Antony and David before. It was quite hard in a way – we just wanted to make the people who are the subjects of the film the focus and not go too heavy on sound design or music. We didn’t want to make it too overly emotional. I was just lucky to be able to collaborate with them. I think they did a great job. We wanted to find a balance to not let the score be the main thing – finding a way to add to the experience, but still giving the interviewees the space to say things in their own words.

AFI: Right now you’re working on shooting a feature film adaptation of Dead Europe, Christos Tsiolkas’s novel. That’s quite a full-on book! 

Tony Krawitz: Yes it is pretty full on! And really hard to adapt. Right now I’m in the office and there are people running around madly getting ready for it. We start the shoot in Sydney for the Australian parts of the story and then we go to Europe, but it’s all very exciting and it’s a great challenge.

AFI: We look forward to seeing it. Best wishes for The Tall Man too, and thanks for your time.

The Tall Man releases nationally 17 November through Hopscotch.

The Tall Man is one of the four films nominated for the AACTA Award for Best Feature Length Documentary at the inaugural Samsung AACTA Awards, with winners announced January 2012. Click through for A Closer Look at the Nominees for Best Feature Length Documentary.