DW Mault considers Cate Shortland’s second feature, Lore, and much more besides…
Someone brighter and sharper than myself once told me that Language (in whatever form), is strange and uncanny; the way it’s there and not there, the loose transitory elements that comprise our thoughts and feelings; shapes the way we live and the how you experience time. They went on to conclude that our internal monologue ultimately exists in a void not of our own making; an entity that never belongs to us. A sort of existential borrowing that is never totally shifted from the downward spiral of that horrid cosmic joke: a life less ordinary.
The concepts of artistic bravery are of course a nonsense; a cinematic angel dies somewhere every time someone acclaims Tom Hooper’s decision to record the songs in Les Misérables live as brave; surely if words like bravery are going to be thrown around they must coalesce around the decision to record language as it is spoken in the particular country of origin? There is nothing more depressing than hearing Anglo-Saxon films that deal with foreign stories having actors speaking accented English.
So let’s stop all the clocks and freeze the ringing telephone; stop calling artistic decisions brave, but Cate Shortland (an Australian) has done the unthinkable. She has taken a stand, a stand that perhaps only Aldous Huxley truly understood, when he proclaimed that “every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he or she has been born”. So victimhood faces the UK film industry every day, and that comes from sharing a language with America. Imagine the freedom we could have with that indifference to the freezing unpoetry of easy explanation that is English.
What Shortland (who is monolingual) has done, is simple, and for that it has a beauty that sets us on the road to never question what appears in front of us; in short she tells a Germanic story in German. For this we are ahead of the untold undercurrents that start to flow and dissipate the moment we meet the eponymous Hannelore, played with a level of duality and the unknown unknowns that brings to mind Aleksey Kravchenko in Elem Klimov’s masterpiece Come And See.
Hannelore, or Lore, is the fanatical teenage daughter of an SS man who escapes from the blood drenched reality of Belarussia in the death rattle of the barbarians eating their own, in spite of the oncoming reality check. Delivered into Nazism via the lottery of an unasked for birth, she is a girl who belongs to two fathers, her biological and her (and the rest of Germany) true host in the death of death: Mein Führer. Lore (the film and the girl) is a focus in encroaching duality: her nascent sexuality conjoins with the unexpected realisation with a slow to Nazi adult historical fact.
Adapted from a story in Rachel Seiffert’s 2001 book The Dark Room, Lore is a film about movement and the horrid ideal and nature of Satan’s fortress; not for this film that sometime banality of the Malickian pseudo religious obsession with the easy beauty of pastoral Edens. After her parents make a futile escape attempt, she is entrusted with her younger siblings and must make the perilous 500 mile journey through a dying Germany, populated by the waking dead that knows that history will not be written by them.
To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary gift. Hardly less important is the capacity to see others as they see themselves. This is the very nature of cinematic purity; I once proclaimed that cinema is about showing not telling; this relates to Francois Truffaut’s factual statement that there was a certain incompatibility between the words British and cinema. Well, it must be taught that a language is to be utilised in many different directions, which brings us back to Huxley. There is a word that Huxley adored; I can imagine part of this love had to do with it being untranslatable. The word is Istigkeit, which can be pseudo translated as Is-ness. I know, again we find what a bland language English truly is.
I prefer the description from the 13th century German philosopher Meister Eckhart, who announced via the prism of religious thought that the Godhead’s istigkeit is a negation of all quiddities; it says that God, rather than non-being, is at the heart of all things. Let’s take away God and Godhead and we have a sense of beauty that Plato, centuries before Eckhart, acclaimed that being must be separated from becoming and therefore must be conjoined with the abstraction of the Idea. Which brings us back to this concept of istigkeit, and what the idea of joined existence truly means in a godless world: an unseen interconnectedness which means that Lore is in fact both the victim and the villain of her and everyone she meets’ narrative ideas of self and istigkeit.
Perhaps we have at the same time overlooked an English deconstruction of the idea of is-ness. I am of course talking about Keats and the idea of negative capability. At first glance the ideas of istigkeit and negative capability seem opposed but they are not. Negative capability is at its base a simplistic idea about wonder; a wonder that Lore discovers as she travels through a dying society realising her istigkeit is a lie and a truth that she must grasp that which ultimately, will lead her to a negative capability of awe and wonder, perhaps leading to a generation that will reject the past and strive to create a new Eden also doomed to fail; just ask Andreas Baader.
Of course this marvelous film exists not in a vacuum; its istigkeit belongs elsewhere from the banalities of he said she said. We are not a people who seek factual explanation, Keats knew this and this is why his only known use of negative capability came in a letter attacking Coleridge for his prioritising knowledge over beauty; this could be looked at as cinema’s dual to the death between those who prize narrative over poetics, the ideal of explanation or questioning which of course brings us back to Socrates over everyone.
We need to strive for allowing ourselves to decide what is in front of us. What the poet Paul Celan in his poem Todesfuge called “the black milk of daylight that we drink at night, as we play with vipers of daydreams”, these are the choices that we faced, by what Daniel Goldhagen called Hitler’s Willing Executioners, and of course most were found wanting; but this is a question that is faced by everyone, everyday and decides whether we strive for a good life and what is left over.