“Lore” deals with provocative, deep subject matter — coming of age, fascism and the Holocaust — but is maddeningly vague about its own stance. It is possible to make a good movie on this issue while being graceful and thoughtful, but that requires thematic clarity. “Lore,” however, is muddled throughout. It seems to equate the loss of innocence with the collective trauma of World War II, which is not a bad idea — or a new one, as Spielberg pulled a similar stunt with the Pacific War in “Empire of the Sun.” But finding meaning in “Lore” takes guesswork, and this isn’t a film that aims for ambiguity.
The film’s first 20 minutes are promising. The 14-year-old title character (Saskia Rosendahl) is moving out of her Austrian home with her family to another location. Her father is an SS officer. Patriotic German music pipes in from everywhere, and everyone expresses certainty that the Reich will be victorious soon.
Lore, however, sees her father as destructive and abusive, est-ablishing her family as an allegory for Nazi Germany. Sadly, this interesting idea is instantly abandoned once the war ends. Her parents are then mysteriously called to Hamburg, and Lore and her siblings must embark on a trip to their grandmother’s house by themselves.
The journey, which takes up most of the film, confounds more often than it illuminates. Lore and her siblings eventually find out about her country’s atrocities, and, like others under Nazi rule, doubt the authenticity of what they hear. But then they run into Thomas (Kai Malina), a Jewish escapee from a concentration camp who joins their group and serves as a guide through a dangerous post-war landscape. Lore develops a strange relationship with the young man, alternating between rabid anti-Semitism and sexual tension, as they both form a strange surrogate parenthood to the younger children accompanying them on their trek.
Unfortunately, “Lore” adds up to much less than the sum of its parts. Newcomer Rosendahl has a decent screen presence, but her character’s development is choppy and confusing. The same goes for Malina — Thomas is a cypher, all brooding and thousand-yard stares.
Director Cate Shortland, an Australian helming a German-language film, adopts the hand-held camera style currently in vogue, but her editing and staging fail to develop space or mood. The scene where the kids first learn of the Nazi concentration camps is meant to be a pivotal moment, but the camera is so shaky and the focus is so shallow — in slow motion, to make things worse — that it’s unclear afterward if the characters und-erstood the situation. “Lore” needs to be clearer about its intentions, because in script and staging the picture stutters in the face of the historic horrors it wants to reveal.
A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 7 print edition. J.R. Hammerer is a staff writer. Email him at email@example.com.