Cinema: Lore – The veracity of photography

Lore, a film by Cate Shortland. Based on the book “Lore” by Rachel Seiffert.

Photography plays a leading role in “Lore”, a film by Cate Shortland, as a key weapon used to  win the peace for the Allies in the aftermath of the Nazi demise in Germany. The same photographs make an appearance within the tender pages of a family album and on a city wall posting of death camp atrocities; photographs are also used to represent a co-opted identity and the  lives destroyed by the Nazi anti-semitic machine

Saskia Rosendahl plays Lore, a 14-year-old left in charge of her three young brothers and sister at the end of the second world war. Her parents have fled arrest for their involvement in the Nazi’s Final Solution. Lore makes her way across a conquered and divided Germany seeking the promised safety of her grandmother’s wealthy country estate. It is a journey where the children witness the death, degradation, and starvation of post-war Germany in graphic detail. The children encounter and are joined on their journey by a mysterious youth named Thomas who appears to be a jewish concentration camp survivor.

Photography is first introduced wistfully in the early stages of the film as ashes and remnants of burned images fall gently on the children while they play in an idealized sunlit German forest…except that… when the children snatch the charred remains from the air, the images are of death camp staff and even the führer himself. Someone is doing away with all the photographic evidence of their past. This photographic connection is further elaborated on when Lore discovers her mother stripping images from the family album to burn in the home fireplace. We see fragments of the images – her mother and father in uniform standing proudly – they are key moments in the parent’s rise, work, and involvement in the Nazi party.

This initial presentation of photography is striking because the images that once represented cherished moments preserved in a family album are transformed into photographic evidence that must be destroyed. It is a compelling presentation of how deeply entrenched anti-semitism was in Nazi Germany, but also how reality changing around the photographs changed the meaning of the images. The images preserved moments, events, and relationships that were once the proof of social ascension, but then became the links to a shameful past.

When the children abandon the home to begin their journey, one of the young boys sneaks a portrait from the album of his father in his SS uniform; on several occasions he will reiterate to strangers the heroic role of his father fighting on the front. All the children, including Lore, see their parents as heroes – a perception clearly depicted in the photographs, but  which slowly unravels as the film progresses.

In the film, the Allies have placed a large display of photographs from the death camps along the wall that people must file by in order to get their daily rations. Lore is shocked to find her father pictured in one image as the commander of one of the camps. She returns to the wall at night and rips down part the photograph and keeps it. Later she compares the image from the wall and the SS portrait  her brother lifted. Distressed by the clear similarity, she buries the images, one smashed on top of the other, in the mud by a riverbank. She tells her companion that she cannot get the images of the death camps out of her head.

Indeed, the published photographs of the death camps are a topic of constant conversation by the German public as the children travel from zone to zone. When they finally are able to get on a train, Lore overhears adults disparaging the authenticity of the photographs by saying that they were of the same dead people taken from different angles. It is an intriguing accusation, because on the one hand photographs are being burned because they document involvement, but other photographs of the same event are suspected of being manipulated in some way. To the public, the veracity of a photograph depended upon the source – the snapshots in the family album were more authentic than those made by the Nazis themselves or the Allies. Despite the believability associated with photography, people were suspicious that they had been manipulated and were familiar enough with the process to understand how.

The young man who adopts the traveling family is an enigma who seldom speaks and then only with a few words. He is holding identity papers – the documents that let the group pass through military checkpoints. The identity photograph and documents in the folder show the man as a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp. But Thomas is not who he appears to be. One of Lore’s young brothers steals his documents and Thomas is forced to flee the train when stopped for a surprise inspection. Lore’s brother reveals that Thomas had told him that the identity papers were actually stolen. The most important photographs and the ones that should be the most reliable –  the ones that were being used to identify who someone was – were in fact a complete misrepresentation. Thomas assumed the identify of someone who perished in the concentration camp by appropriating their photograph.

We still believe in photography as an accurate representation of human identity. Our “identity papers” have simply been downsized to a drivers license or passport. But we can adopt other identities through photography by the images we post to represent ourselves on the Internet. Thomas built a fantasy life around the wallet of identity papers, much the same way individuals build virtual identities.

As Lore peruses the contents of the wallet she finds a collection of family snapshots discreetly tucked away. The images show happy moments in the life of a young couple and their first child. The photographs that Lore discovers in the packet become the final piece of evidence that convinces Lore of the repulsiveness of her parent’s and family’s involvement in the Holocaust.

In the film, we begin with a family album of snapshots that are a facade of heroism that disguise the true horror of the parent’s role in the “Final Solution”. The film concludes by humanizing the piles of corpses in the propaganda photographs with more snapshots, but this time of the lives that once belonged to the victims. This film explores how the meaning of photographs can change as the reality that provides their context is transformed by circumstance and time.

About Douglas Barkey

Director of Teaching and Learning Effectiveness The Art Institutes Photographer, Artist
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