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March 10, 2013

Genres have tropes for a reason. Far from mere lazy storytelling clichés, tropes are idioms or shibboleths that help us recognize and make sense of our stories. And they occur in all sorts of artistic media; halos on religious images are stylized and abstracted versions of signifiers drawing attention to the most important figures in a scene. When, as a storyteller, you make use of a genere’s tropes you bring in a raft of implications and assumptions about your point, just as surely as when you draw a circle around someone’s head in a picture. And sometimes that can get you into trouble.

Writer Robin Mukherjee and writer/director Cate Shortland were surely aware of the genre of Holocaust survival films, since they use so many of its tropes in making Lore. But there’s such a thing as Godwin’s Law for a reason; drawing any parallels to the enormity of the Holocaust is a risky proposition under the best of situations, and a story about Germans displaced in the wake of World War II is incredibly problematic from the outset.

As the film begins, the war in Europe is at an end. The Führer is dead, and the allied forces have divided and occupied Germany. The Dressler family goes into hiding, as their father — “Vati” curiously untranslated to “daddy” — is a prominent SS officer and their mother — “Mutti” — is a staunch Nazi believer. After her parents are arrested or turn themselves in, Hannelore (Saskia Rosendahl) must lead her young siblings to their granny’s — sorry, “Omi’s” — house in Hamburg.

So we have a family collecting their valuables and going into hiding before an outright flight. There’s even a worthless trinket, a porcelain deer, to symbolize their connection to their old stable life. These are just the first of the ways that Mukherjee and Shortland tell the Dressler’s story as if it’s that of a Jewish family running from their own capture five or six years earlier. Not to mitigate the Dresslers’ tribulations, but you’ll pardon me if I have a little more compassion for an entire class of people being systematically exterminated than I do for an hysterical Hitler Youth brat.

No, I do not believe that the filmmakers are seriously advancing the idea that these two experiences are directly comparable. I’m reasonably certain that their intent is to use these tropes to put us into Lore’s mindset; from her perspective, her family is being unfairly hunted down, and at the end she does come to realize the truth and smashes the lies she grew up with. But this happens literally at the last minute, and a symbolic coda doesn’t stand up very well against the ugliness that has come before.

Any comparison with the Holocaust risks either overblowing the point, or diminishing the tragedy; it is rhetorical dynamite, and it must be handled with extreme care and precision. This is true even in generic situations, like using these tropes to tell a story about the Trail of Tears. The closer you come to the truth, the more delicate it becomes; when an interviewee in The Gatekeepers discusses Israel’s treatment of Palestinians he takes great pains to be explicit about what he is and is not saying. This case, a direct inversion of the Jewish genocide, is juggling flaming chainsaws in a warehouse full of gasoline, and Mukherjee and Shortland are disturbingly casual about it.

There is certainly something to be gained from considering the “common German’s” perspective on the events and aftermath of the Holocaust and the war. There may even be something to be gained from exactly this sort of inverted view. But, given what’s sitting at the other end of the metaphor, this is not a case to be made garishly or frivolously the way we see here.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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