‘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.