Lore, not the English word for a body of tradition but the German female name, is the title. The film is set in northern Germany, mid-1945. The war is just ending. The German people are the subject, as seen through only a few of them. Lore is the teenage daughter, about sixteen, of an SS officer and his equally Nazi wife. We are going to meet a few of the cheering thousands we saw in newsreels, now that the cheering is over.
The opening atmosphere is an exploded dream. Here is a family—parents, Lore, and her four younger siblings—who have lived in a set of robust certainties and are now now stripped. The father has been ordered to report to a dismissal camp, soon to be followed by his wife. At the start the parents are grim, trying to get used to the new world. Lore, alert but puzzled, is also trying to comprehend that strange new world. The father packs and, disturbed and quarrelsome, leaves. The mother, stony in despair, prepares Lore to take care of of her sister and brothers, including an infant. The mother cannot take them with her, and she charges Lore with the job of getting them all across country to a relative in Hamburg. The mother’s ease in abandoning her children, possibly because it may be better for them, seems to be part of the anesthetized time. She goes. Lore and the other children begin their journey.
Thus we are invited into sympathy – or at least understanding – for a people who were loathed and fearful enemies. The lapse of time since 1945 helps, of course; still it is more or or less difficult to face what was always true. Those teeming thousands in those newsreels, were people, too, even at the worst of Nazi times. That is the picture’s daring point. Not to excuse them, but to underscore the fact that even when we hated them, they were people, too. Of course this has been true throughout the wars of history and will be true in every present and future war until the conflicts are over and the loathsome people have been defeated.
This film was made in Europe by the Australian Cate Shortland, who wrote the screenplay with Robin Mukherjee based on a novel by Rachel Seiffert. Shortland is deft and discreet, showing us only what we absolutely need to see, including a good deal of the lovely countryside through which this gray story moves, as rendered by Adam Arkapaw’s responsive camera. Under Lore’s agreeably firm hand, the family makes its way, buying food as they can with the meager funds and jewelry that their mother gave them. Along the way they move through an emotionally tattered land. (One older woman says sadly as she looks at a photo of Hitler, “He loved us all so much.”) And as a sort of compensation, some of them even believe that the American soldiers now on hand are all actors paid to say the things they say.
Along the road Lore and her brood meet Thomas, a young man who, he says, survived the camps. When he has to show his papers to a guard, Lore sees that they are marked “Jude,” which now, in this reversed world, gets him through. Affection grows between Lore and Thomas—he even kills a man who is assaulting her, and then they merely move along in this battered country. But neither of them is really ready for love. He admits later on that he has stolen the Jewish papers in order to be safe—in Germany. At last Lore’s group reaches its Hamburg relatives—minus one boy who was cruelly lost on the trip. They are welcomed. Still, we see what the journey has done to Lore and presumably to the others.
Saskia Rosendahl as Lore is the sturdiest in a good cast, making her way cautiously into a new, utterly changed universe. She made me remember that in 1964 I was in Hamburg and met a woman who told me how, during the Allied air raids of 1943, when she was six, she and her younger sister had hugged in their basement, quivering with fear. I remembered how thrilled I and my friends were by those raids. Shortland has shown us vividly some of the inevitable moral concussions of war.
A re-meeting, so to speak. In 1966 I went to an Off-Broadway production of a dramatized Turgenev story. In the setting of a Moscow office I saw an unknown actor give an expert performance of a middle-aged musty clerk. When I learned that this actor was only in his twenties, I was even more impressed. His name was Dustin Hoffman.
Not long afterward he played the male lead for his first solid film role in The Graduate and became the epic collegian of the day, looking for the way to use his life. Thus began a film career astonishing in its range—a city knockabout, an autistic sufferer, a Devil’s Island prisoner, dozens of other men, and one pseudo-woman. And, not incidentally, he triumphed in this film career though he was short, not especially good-looking, and distinctly not the usual Hollywood Anglo-Saxon male. Behold! This phenomenal actor, now seventy-five, is beginning another career. He has directed a film.
It is called Quartet—not to be confused with the current A Late Quartet—and it is, as was often the case with Hoffman’s acting roles, a surprise. It is set in an English home for retired musicians. (It is called the Sir Thomas Beecham Home for Retired Musicians, a huge mansion with ample beautiful grounds, but in fact the place is a private residence that has been rented for the occasion.) The residents are all well-known English singers or instrumentalists or English actors playing such. Maggie Smith and Tom Courtenay—and Michael Gambon as the chairman of the group—are of course fine actors, here being musicians for a while. Smith is a former prima donna, and Courtenay is a singer who once was her husband.
The first thing to note is that Hoffman has apparently had a grand time working with these professionals, all of whom as residents of the home are splendid. His direction, except for a bit of over-editing early on that makes the start a bit choppy, is understanding and fluent, and some moments, like Smith’s arrival in the home, are ingeniously handled. The screenplay, adapted by Ronald Harwood from a play of his, has to do with reuniting the two divorcees in Verdi’s Rigoletto quartet. The husband was badly hurt in their long-ago divorce. And much of the story is maneuverings to get them together again. It is all a bit thin, but in a sense this doesn’t matter. The important thing was to spend a hundred minutes or so with these people in that place.
In fact, it occurred to me that if elderly musicians ever dream of an afterlife, it might be much like this. An exquisitely furnished, spacious Valhalla, well-staffed, and full of old chums. The life beyond, as Hoffman might agree, could certainly be worse.