Life During WARTIME

Just released for home viewing, 2016’s WWII romantic thriller Allied (Brad Pitt vs. Nazis) prompted me to take a look at two foreign language films about that era, from different points of view. Winter in Wartime (’08) is a Dutch film, focusing on a teenaged boy whose father is mayor of a small Netherlands town, collaborating with the Nazis during the German occupation. Lore (’12), an Australian/German co-production, is about a teenaged German girl who, after the fall of Hitler, tries to make sense of the new reality as she struggles to get her younger siblings to safety.

Winter is the more traditional of the two, as far as character and plot. Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) is the 13-year-old protagonist who comes to the aid of downed British airman Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower), helping him to hide in a snowy forest, providing food and trying to arrange an escape for him. Though Michiel loves his father (Raymond Thiry), the boy is critical of Dad’s relationship with the occupying enemy, not understanding that as mayor, his father’s trying to do the best for the townspeople.

Instead, the boy idolizes his Uncle Ben (Yorick van Wageningen), a resistance fighter. As the Nazis intensify their search for the British pilot, though, Michiel learns his black-and-white view is far more complicated than he first realized. In terms of suspense and plot twists, the movie plays somewhat like Allied—who gets away with what before (or if) the Nazis catch them? It’s a familiar but still engrossing, even nail-biting scenario.

Based on Jan Terlouw’s autobiographical novel and directed by Martin Koolhoven, the film’s greatest strength is how it avoids stereotypes on both sides of the conflict, reflecting instead a powerful sense of what it must have been like living under the occupation. The Nazi machine is ruthless; the individual German soldiers not necessarily so. As Michiel discovers, principles of behavior are even more complicated for subjugated citizens, especially his father.

Winter in Wartime takes place a few months before the end of the war in Europe. Lore begins in the spring of the same year shortly before Hitler’s death, this time from the German angle. The main character is Lore, a teenaged girl whose story (and the film itself) is quite different from a conventional narrative, but even more powerful and affecting.

Co-written and directed by Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland (Somersault), Lore is one of three separate stories which comprise The Dark Room (2001), Rachel Seiffert’s prize-winning British novel. The film was shot almost entirely in Germany, though, with a German-speaking cast, highlighting its curious hybrid nature.

Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is the oldest daughter of a high-ranking Nazi official who, with Lore’s mother, tries to prepare for the obvious fall of the Reich by destroying anything linking them to the regime. It’s futile; Lore’s father disappears and her mother (after being raped and robbed) leaves her children to surrender to the authorities.

Taking charge, Lore gathers her siblings (an adolescent sister, twin brothers and a nursing infant) and sets out on foot for their grandmother’s home in a distant city. Their odyssey is one of incredible hardship and danger as they, and other displaced refugees, try to traverse a new and devastated homeland.

Shortland’s elliptic narrative is episodic. The hungry, thirsty travelers find the corpse of a raped woman in one homestead, a suicide in another. One old woman gives them temporary shelter and some food, lamenting before a picture of Hitler how “we had let him down.” Another aged survivor crows in delight as the little twins proudly sing an Aryan hymn.

At one point, the desperate siblings are joined by a young Jewish man who, posing as their older brother, enables them to pass through the American-controlled partition because of his identity papers. A devoted Nazi like her parents, Lore slowly begins to learn the truth about the Final Solution, the knowledge propelling her coming-of-age in a new direction.

Both raw and lyrical, Lore is a transformative experience with revelatory performances all around, but especially by young Rosendahl. It’s one of those films that personalize history, making it palpable and real.

As Lore discovers, the monsters to be most feared are of our own making.