Cate Shortland established herself as a serious filmmaker with her impressive feature debut, Somersault, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004. Her second film, the visually stunning Lore, which opens February 8th, follows the harrowing journey of a fourteen-year-old German girl (Saskia Rosendahl) who leads her four siblings across a war-torn Germany after her Nazi parents are imprisoned by the victorious Allies at the end of World War II. When she meets a mysterious young refugee, Thomas (Kai Malina), she must put her trust in the very person she was always taught to hate in order to survive.
Shortland talked to me about the challenges of making a film that delves into gray areas and raises questions about every concept we have of family, love and friendship. She discussed the book that inspired the film, her collaboration with screenwriter Robin Mukherjee, portraying the characters with objectivity while also giving them a sense of humanity, researching the historical era, and creating the look and visual language of the film. She also revealed how the film affected her personally, her reaction to Lore being selected as Australia’s official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film, and her upcoming project — a love story set in Bali. Hit the jump to read more.
Cate Shortland: I was given the book which is called The Dark Room [by Rachel Seiffert]. It’s an astounding book. She was the youngest person ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize. She was 28. It’s three novellas dealing with the impact on the German psyche of the Holocaust, so it was a scary and interesting perspective. The way that Rachel writes it has such beautiful humanism. She reserves judgment and tries through little details to make up the quite profound pieces of history. It gets under your skin and allows you into a perspective that you thought you knew because we have such a didactic idea of Germany.
What was your collaborative process like with screenwriter Robin Mukherjee?
Shortland: Robin wrote the first two drafts and I would give notes. And then, I wanted the film to be far more internal and from Laura’s perspective, so I wrote two drafts on my own. I worked with a fantastic script editor in Berlin called Franz Rodenkirchen. He had run the Binger Institute in Amsterdam and he also runs the Locarno Film Lab, two very well-known script workshops in Europe. He’s got a lot of experience and he’s a real anarchist. It was a perfect fit for this film because he was looking at what people do outside of a retrospective idea of history.
What were some of the challenges of adapting the book to film? How do the book and the film differ?
Shortland: The story is based on a true story. Laura is Rachel’s mother. Rachel Seiffert wrote the book, but it is her mother’s story. In some ways, Rachel would touch on sexuality or violence, but I think she tried to protect her mother. And so, what we did was, I was unafraid and I looked at the scene between Thomas and Laura or the scene with the fisherman when they kill the fisherman, and I would think okay, what would really happen? What did they really do? What did they want to do? And I’d just go there. The film became a lot more sexual and quite a bit more violent than the original story.
Shortland: I have a strong relationship with my husband’s grandmother who left Berlin in 1937. That relationship was really important to me the whole time I was shooting. It’s her family photographs that are in Thomas’s wallet. That’s Lisa. I went through immense anger and grief during the researching process. For a couple of years, I was sometimes alone in Berlin doing the research, and I would cry the same way any human being, Jewish or non-Jewish, would who is perplexed and hurt and angry when you see gross injustice. The other thing that really upsets you is denial. One of the beautiful things about making the film is I’ve had to throw out a lot of the preconceived ideas I had about Germany and about German people, especially living in Berlin with my kids. We have African kids and they have been shown acceptance and love in that community. There is also the transparency with which Germany now deals with the Holocaust. Berlin has the fastest growing German population in the world. It’s a very cool spot to live.
How did you go about striking the right balance between your characters to give them a sense of humanity without labeling them either good or bad so that the audience can draw its own conclusions?
Shortland: That’s a good question. We were dealing with children, and especially a child of that age, 14, who’s on the cusp of being able to make decisions for herself, but she’s not quite there yet. Even in her age, there’s an ambiguity. At some stages, the audience can think “Oh, the poor child. Look at how she suffers.” And then, the next minute, the audience is confronted with hideous doctrine spewing from her mouth. What Saskia (Rosendahl) and I tried to do very early on was to play those scenes in exactly the same way and to pull judgment out of it. Otherwise, we’re condescending to the audience and we’re trying to tell the audience how to feel. What I really felt with this film was there had to be a shadow narrative that the audience can inhabit, and there’s room for the audience to think and to make up their own minds. Otherwise, we’re smacking the same kind of redemptive films that have been made before and that does not further any dialogue or any discussion about totalitarianism or even what 1945 was.
Shortland: I thought about it. I have a really close relationship with my dad, which was a very troubling relationship when I was a child because my dad was an orphan. He had no idea about parenting and he was an angry dad. But he’s really mellowed and I’m very close to him. I thought, imagine if somebody came to me and said this man that you love is a pedophile. How do you equate the person you love with committing probably what I would consider one of the most horrendous crimes you can commit, which is taking away a child’s innocence? I don’t know. I don’t think I could keep loving him. It’s a really difficult thing. She’s left in this place of absolute moral bankruptcy, and she has to rebuild herself. For me, I think it’s the relationship with Thomas that really opens her heart. She’s meant to hate this person, but she feels this strong desire and connection. It’s such a hard question. If you’re the child of a murderer and someone you know has hunted down women and children, how do you ever sit across the table from him again? That’s actually what happened in Germany. These men came home, and sometimes were even given jobs running hospitals, and they became politicians. They were often in the highest levels of society. It wasn’t until around 1968, when the younger generation came out – Baader-Meinhof, that whole generation — and said “No. We want to know. We want you to tell us the truth.” That caused this massive overturning of how they spoke about their history.
Can you talk about the stylistic choices you made and how you collaborated with your DP, production designer and costume designer to create the look and visual language of the film?
Shortland: We were influenced by two things: documentary filmmaking, because we wanted the film to be fresh and immediate, and the whole aesthetics of National Socialism and the connection of National Socialism with nature. Nature became a character in the film in the same way as it was mythologized within the Nazi Party and was taught to children. The design of the film starts off very lush. They’re in this beautiful house, which is a Jewish house that the family would have taken over. And then, as the film continues, all of the color is leeched out of their clothes. The landscape becomes more and more desolate until they’re standing on mud and there’s almost nothing left. That was our whole rationale. They made all of the girls four or six sets of clothes, and the clothes got bigger and bigger and bigger to make the kids look smaller and smaller. And then, they just bleached out the color until the end when they’re all really faded. Adam Arkapaw was a wonderful DP to work with. He’s incredibly passionate and wanted everything to be immediate. He wouldn’t shoot something if it was just ordinary.
Shortland: It’s because she’s a widow. Straightway, in Germany, if you are widowed, you instantly wear black. They used to dye the sheets.
The picture is beautifully shot and it looks very expensive. How did you pull together the financing to accomplish that?
Shortland: It’s a co-production between Germany, Australia and the U.K. We had $4 million. We were lucky because we had fantastic designers and a fantastic D.P. We shot on 16mm and we did things in a very simple way and we kept the crew to a minimum. What we would often do is we’d have all the trucks, the big trucks, and then Adam and I would have a mini-crew and we would take that small crew into the forest with the kids on small utility trucks and stay out there for hours and then come back. There was always this idea of trying to create a very simple and safe environment for the kids to exist so that they didn’t have to act.
The performances are very strong. Can you talk about how you assembled your cast and what the rehearsal process was like?
Shortland: We knew that [the character of] Laura had to be really astounding. She’s in every scene. And so, we looked all over Germany. We looked at over 300 girls. Saskia Rosendahl came in during the last week. She’s a dancer with no acting experience. She’s got incredible natural grace and strength and is very intelligent. She played off her instincts. She’s done some drama courses at school, but that’s very different to being on a film set. Kai Malina had been in the Michael Haneke film, The White Ribbon. We had a mixture of people who had experience and Saskia who had no experience. She was really brave. In rehearsals, we started off with physical movement and song. They sang all these propaganda songs. They learned about fifteen propaganda songs and all the National Socialist dances. They learned how people would eat in 1945 – how children would sit and their eye contact. We talked about what school would be like. They watched a lot of documentaries about families and about Bund Deutscher Mädel, the German Girls League. We tried to build it up gradually from the skin instead of starting with the text, so that they already had an organic idea of the world before we introduced it and said, “Okay, now you’ve got to say this.”
Shortland: It was horrendous. Do you know what upset me the most? It was the pregnant women. How do you massacre pregnant women? They talked about how in the gas chambers the women would go into birth. They would go into labor. Some of the stuff was just horrendous. You can’t get that out of you. You just have to live with it. I always thought that that’s what those children would live with, because as soon as they were old enough, they would look at everything. Rachel would look at everything. I’ve met her. I met her in London. She became a big peace activist and she married a professor at Oxford. She’s an incredibly liberal, beautiful woman who must have done so much soul searching.
You used many locations that were authentic to the era. How did the history of these locations and what had taken place there influence your storytelling and the way you approached your production?
Shortland: That was probably one of the hardest things for me. The two houses we shot early in the film were Jewish houses that had been taken off the families in the 1930s. When we found those houses, they were all boarded up. They had been completely gutted and their fireplaces had been taken out and the windows were shattered. Silke Fischer, our Production Designer, had a massive job with a huge team for about a month redoing the houses. Then, the Armaments Factory was a slave labor camp. Where we shot in Görlitz, which was on the Polish border, had been a concentration camp. My husband said Kaddish, which is the Jewish Prayer of the Dead, on the first day of shooting, but not in front of the crew. The crew was in one room and we went into another room with my family because my family was on set that day. My son was my video speed operator. It was a strange thing, because we had the contemporary German society and then we had our film. But then, I also felt like I had the victims with me. At times, it was a very painful experience.
What was the hardest part of the film to shoot? What went well and what were some of the things you could have done without?
Shortland: I could have done without the baby crying so much. We had five babies. That was really hard. He was such a beautiful little baby. His mom was always on set. But, as soon as he’d see Saskia, he’d start to cry because he knew that meant work, so that was really tricky and a bit painful for him and us. Every film you do, you always look at it and you think, “I could do better,” but I’m never going to tell people what I could do better. I think it’s up to them to make up their own mind.
Shortland: It was so bloody hard getting it all together, this co-production, and we always thought it was going to fall apart. Finishing was incredibly liberating. You live with this material, and it’s such difficult material to live with, and I think just being able to go home. Where I live in Sydney, it’s 60 percent non-English speaking background. It’s a big Vietnamese community and also Portuguese, Greek, and Islander, and I’ve got a big tropical garden. Just to be able to go home and get out of this whole idea of the Nazi period. I felt like I’d been through some sort of horrible war.
What is the greatest thing you learned about yourself from this experience?
Shortland: Not to judge, to try not to judge. Try and withhold your judgment, because as soon as you think you know something, you’re shutting down. I’m a really judgmental person, and it just dumbs everything down. It doesn’t create any room for interrogation or investigation. With this whole process, it’s so easy to say “evil Nazi monsters,” but as soon as we do that, we take away the fact that it was individuals committing individual acts of murder. They had children, and what does that do? As soon as you generalize, they become monsters. It doesn’t allow you to understand it in any kind of sophisticated way.
How did you feel when you heard your film was the official Oscar entry for Australia for Best Foreign Language Film?
Shortland: It was very exciting. There were 71 films so it was really tough. But it’s just great for the film to be out and for people to see it and talk about it. It’s what you want.
What are you working on next?
Shortland: I’m very busy. I work with a company called Matchbox. I’ve just been nominated for an Emmy for a TV show we did called The Slap. I’m doing two more TV shows with them as a writer so I’m very busy. One is about pedophilia in the Catholic Church, and the other one is about the first entrenched war journalists. There are no titles yet. And then, I’m hoping to do a film next year with Jan Chapman who produced The Piano, Bright Star, Lantana and Somersault. It’s a love story set in Bali. I always have to have a love story (laughs). Even in this, I have to have a love story.