By Simon Miraudo
September 19, 2012
Cate Shortland's feature debut, Somersault, entered Aussie film lore when it became the biggest ever winner at the AFI awards. With the shadow of its success looming large, she waited eight years to deliver her follow-up, the fittingly titled Lore. And it might similarly enter the record books since it's been selected as Australia's official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at next year's Oscars. Set in post-WW2 Germany, the tale is told completely in the German language, and tells of a young Nazi named Hannalore (newcomer Saskia Rosendahl) who struggles to keep her brothers and sisters alive in the days following Hitler's suicide.
We spoke to Shortland about shooting in an alien tongue, the danger of making Nazis seem sympathetic on screen, and the picture's parallels with Australia's own questionable colonial history. Hit the 'Play' button below to hear the interview.
Hit the 'Play' button above to hear the interview.
SM: There was an eight year gap between Somersault and Lore. You've done some TV in the interim, but was there a specific reason why you didn't immediately return to film?
CS: Yes, I think I just wanted to experience a bit more of life and, I suppose, have things to make films about. So, I've done TV. I've been writing for Matchbox Pictures in Sydney - who did The Slap - and I'm working on a show on Gallipoli. But also my husband [director Tony Krawitz] and I moved to South Africa for a while, and I worked with an NGO outside Soweto, and that was really great. We were there for two years.
SM: Right, so back into the real world for a period. When you did get back into working on your next film, was the shadow of Somersault's success looming large?
CS: It actually wasn't. I think, possibly, having a break was actually a good thing. I think this film being in German language and being set in 1945 gave me a lot of freedom. I actually really enjoyed the process and found it exciting and stimulating. I didn't much have Somersault in my head, actually, which is, I think, a really good thing.
SM: I think so too. And I understand you also lived in Germany for a period of time. How good is your German?
CS: My German is fairly atrocious, but I've got a lot of really great people that help me when I'm on set and with the casting and everything. So, yeah, I've been really lucky to meet those people.
SM: I was going to say, it's kind of an interesting choice to film the movie in the German language. It shouldn't be an interesting choice, because it has German characters and it's set in Germany, but the old standard of English accents taking over has not been appropriated here. Was that an easy decision to come to? To film it in German?
CS: Yeah. About four years ago, as we were developing the script, I said to the producers that I didn't want to shoot the film in English. One of the great things is when people watch the film now, one of the first things they comment on are the performances, and I just don't think we would have got these incredible performances - especially from the younger cast - if they also had to think about their language. So there's a real immediacy and freshness to it, because they're not worrying about that. There just worrying about what feels true within the scene. I think we definitely made the right decision.
SM: For sure. But noting that language barrier, when you were on set, were you ever apprehensive or uncertain that you were getting the performances you wanted?
CS: Not so much with the kids, because I spent three weeks in rehearsal with them, so I knew them really well. Plus, I'd just done the last two drafts on the script and worked with the translator in translating it. So I knew it pretty much back to front. It was more working with the adult cast. I really felt my lack of German then.
SM: Lore is based on Rachel Seiffert's novel The Dark Room. Can you tell me a little bit about first getting introduced to that book?
CS: The book is made up of three novellas, and Rachel was one of the youngest people to be nominated for the Booker Prize. I think she was 29 when she was nominated for this novel. It's three stories; one is set before the war and during the war, one is set around the time Hitler commits suicide and the six weeks after that when the Allies take over Germany, and the other one is set in contemporary times. We've shot the middle novella; the one set in 1945.
SM Was there anything specific from when you first read the book that really intrigued you and made you feel, "I specifically can make a movie about this, and this is a story that I want to tell"?
CS: What really intrigued me was that the stories are very, very intimate. So you really get into the characters. She's not preaching to you what's happened; you're just with these characters and experiencing what they experienced as they experience it. It's a really incredible way of experiencing the time, because it feels so visceral. I think as a filmmaker you just love getting your teeth into stuff like that, that feels really strong. There's a lot stuff in it that's quite confronting. And I just felt like I wanted to make a bigger film in terms of the scope. So although it's character driven, the ideas in it are a lot more, I suppose, international than Somersault was.
SM: I think that's definitely the case, but there's also a coming-of-age tale underneath there as well, so it does have that parallel with Somersault. Was that something you identified with in the story early on?
CS: That's kind of a coincidence. But definitely what I really love about it is the lead character is dealing - she's fourteen - with her sexuality, she's dealing with growing up in a totalitarian state, she's dealing with all these things at once. It's like her body is fighting her mind at times. That was really great, because that just feels so real.
SM: Absolutely. The lead character is played by Saskia Rosendahl, and she's fairly brilliant. She has to go through a fair amount of trials throughout the course of the movie. Can you tell us about finding her?
CS: We looked at about 300 girls across Germany, and Saskia had not done a feature film before, or even a television show or anything. This is her first role. She's trained as a dancer. She was, I think, 17 when we met her. She's now 18. She just went into the film with this really open, instinctual way of looking at everything. And it was a real battle for her, because she's actually a really kind person, and she has to play this girl who has these strong Nazi beliefs. What you're seeing onscreen is this battle between Saskia and the character she's playing, so it's really gripping I think.
SM: What I found really intriguing about your movie is that it focuses on the losers of a war, and what becomes of them in the aftermath. Now, they also happen to be Nazis. Were you concerned about making sympathetic some of history's greatest villains?
CS: Yeah, that was a real concern, and something that we looked deeply into through the whole process, and something I talked to Rachel Seiffert about. I don't think we'll ever really understand the Holocaust, but I don't think you can understand these kind of atrocities at all unless we look at what happened to the victims but also what motivated the perpetrators. My husband's family are German Jews, and they left in '37. That really gave me a lot of strength as well, because I had them giving me a lot of advice and talking about it, saying, "Be strong, make the film. It's in no way talking about Germany being victims. It's just talking about these specific children, and what happened to them in their lives."
SM: Exactly, and I think that's how you understand the human experience. I think it's more important to frame them as humans rather than a faceless, villainous entity. And I do think you walk the tightrope there expertly in that regard. That being said, have you been confronted by anyone who's been troubled by the film's content or its approach, and how do you deal with people who speak to that?
CS: Funnily enough, we just showed the film at Switzerland, the Locarno Film Festival, and it's the biggest art-house film festival in the world now. We won the Audience Award; we had an audience of 8000 people. So, people are really responding to the film and the fears I had, and all the work that we put into making sure what we were saying was clear, have paid off. I'm really excited about releasing it here and seeing if it creates any dialogue about how Australia has dealt with its colonial history and the atrocities that we've committed .
SM: I think there are some interesting parallels there. Congratulations on the prize at Locarno. I believe you're taking the film to Toronto for the International Film Festival. (Ed: TIFF 2012 had not yet taken place at the time of this interview.)
CS: Yeah, we are. It's fantastic.
SM: That's great news. Somersault made a splash at Cannes back in 2004. Do you enjoy the international festival circuit? Is that a trip you enjoy taking?
CS: Umm, I have two kids [laughs] and my son has exams next week.
SM: Oh dear.
CS: So, actually, I'm a bit torn. Also my little girl is four. What I really enjoy is talking to people about the ideas in the film, and what different cultures make of the film. That is exciting. We're showing the film all over the world. We're showing it in Hamburg after Toronto. Then it's at the London Film Festival, in competition. Then in Abu Dhabi, and then Busan in Korea. It's really fascinating to see what people make of it, and I'm really excited to see what they make of it in Korea, with the situation there in terms of North Korea.
SM: Absolutely. Maybe we need to make a hologram of you to get you at all these places at once.
CS: Yeah [laughs].
SM: You mentioned briefly before the Gallipoli TV show you're working on. Is that your next big project?
CS: That will be developed over the next couple of years. Sam Worthington is one of the producers; he was an actor in Somersault, and people would know him from Avatar.
SM: Of course.
CS: It's a great project. It's through the eyes of the journalists, and it's a made for television. We're doing a lot of research and I'm really loving the work actually.
Lore arrives in Australian cinemas September 20, 2012.