Review by Ken Burke Lore
A unique post-WW II story of Nazi children suddenly caught in unexpected upheaval as they must walk across Germany for shelter when they become the new outcasts.
Teenage romance with a supernatural twist, about a powerful girl witch Caster (they insist; don't argue) overcoming family resistance for her love of a mortal guy.
This week’s ruminations concern two vastly different stories, one based in history—Cate Shortland’s Lore about the aftermath of the Second World War and its impact on formerly-secure children of now-criminal Nazis—and the other a pure fantasy—Richard LaGravenese’s Beautiful Creatures about the angst of a supernatural girl in love with a mere mortal guy—but with the plausible linkage being the focus on their emerging-into-adulthood female teenage protagonists (an appropriate topic as we celebrate International Women's Day on March 8) and the travails of being outsiders in a society that suddenly or consistently hates you. Admittedly, the former film is a very serious exploration of shifted values and the trauma, both physical and emotional, that comes from your expected future suddenly being decimated whereas the latter is just another escapist twist on the old Romeo and Juliet story of forbidden love (and other sources to be explored below), but both feature strong adolescents emerging into even stronger young women, taking responsibility for their life choices and providing very different role models for their audiences than is normally assumed in either of these types of venues (and I thank Katy Kern for putting forth a review at her blog— connection found at the very bottom of this page under Links You Might Like—with enough complimentary comments on Beautiful Creatures to encourage me to look into it after it had just about left my consciousness; if you go to her well-designed blog [Two Guys should hire her as a design-layout consultant] you’ll find her review of this movie either on her current homepage or under her category listings for either Drama or Romance).
Beginning our explorations with Lore, a nickname for the character of 14 year-old Hannelore (Saskia Rosendahl), the eldest of the 5 Dressler children and the narrative-emotional center of this story, based on a portion of Rachel Seiffert’s acclaimed novel, The Dark Room, this German-language film (with funding from there along with additional support from Australia, from whence the director hails [thereby technically making it an Australian product when it was entered into Oscar competition for Best Foreign Language Film], and the United Kingdom), we have the grim tale of youngsters suddenly left to their own devices when WW II ends and their Nazi parents are put into Allied internment camps awaiting justice for their war crimes (actually, only the officer father, Vati [Hans-Jochen Wagner], is arrested but mother, Mutti [Ursina Lardi], gives herself up rather than face the harsher penalty for avoiding surrender [and both of these words are simply German for “Daddy” and “Mommy,” so we never even get the actual names of the quickly-departed adult Dresslers). Before Mutti drives off to turn herself in she passes on some of the family silverware and a few other minor objects of value to Lore, with an admonition to take her siblings to the home of their grandmother, Omi (again, just a term, not an actual name, further emphasizing the unanticipated distancing and disconnection that the young Dresslers now must endure in their fallen Fatherland), in the countryside near Hamburg. What none of them know at their time of departure is that the famous punctual German trains are now not running at all in the aftermath of surrender and increasing Allied occupation so the children must journey on foot for hundreds of miles, carrying virtually nothing except their baby brother because they can’t manage the weight of even a suitcase apiece. The opening minutes of this film are very effective in quickly conveying the family’s shocking transition from comfortable upper-class social hierarchy to homeless, hunted outcasts facing danger at every turn as the war's unanticipated end leaves them clueless as to how to respond to this version of a "New World Order" they had never imagined.
(This all reminds me somewhat of the situation in Fritz Lang's German Expressionism classic Metropolis  where “fortunate son” Freder cavorts on the high-rise rooftops of the elite until he learns of the downtrodden realities of the workers who tend the vast machines that power his futuristic city; at least Freder’s story ends with a new balance of power between society’s commanders and the commanded, whereas Lore’s postwar Germany is more like the ruinous mess that almost was the fate of both the upper and lower worlds in Metropolis.) Soon Lore, younger sister Liesel (Nele Trebs), even younger twins Günther (André Frid) and Jürgen (Mika Seidel), and baby Peter (Nick Holaschke) are winding their way through the woods heading north, alternating between finding shelter from those who still share their parents’ beliefs (an old woman who keeps her photo of Hitler on her farmhouse wall and insists the children have nothing to atone for) and perceived danger from the American soldiers now ruling their part of Germany and curious who they are, traveling alone like this. They also encounter atrocities that sadly are part of a postwar landscape including a dead woman in a barn who’s clearly been raped, a suicide victim at another location (Lore has begun to lose her former illusions about propriety, so she takes his watch in hopes of trading it for food later), and the daily sustenance situations of the children which leads to them eating raw eggs at one point when they have no other choice to ingest some semblance of a meal.
Oddly enough, help emerges in the person of Thomas (Kai Malina), just a bit older than Lore, who tells the Dresslers that he’s a Jewish escapee from Nazi atrocities then claims to be their brother so that the soldiers will leave them alone, as he is now a protected traveler due to his past concentration camp explanations. Throughout their journey, the Dressler children have had to endure not only hunger, filth, and lack of proper shelter but also constant challenges to their previous upbringing such as the surprising attempt of Mutti to erase the family’s past by removing photos of Der Führer from their albums and burning them while they were temporarily holed up at a cabin in the woods. They now find themselves as outcasts, shunned by other Germans who don’t hold the Nazi-sympathizer farmwife’s attitudes, either because these lost and largely-helpless children are representative of a horror that even Germans had to endure for years as their country was taken over by homicidal maniacs or simply because these wanderers are danger-by-association, as Allied troops are still actively rounding up prisoners in this war-torn occupied nation in 1945. Thomas quickly befriends the younger Dresslers but Lore is war-torn herself, as well as emotionally torn between accepting this new protector—as well as acknowledging the stirring sexual passion in her young body which has no other option for fulfillment except for this available stranger—but being able to do it only by overcoming her family conditioning which has taught her to despise Thomas simply because he is a Jew. The scene that captures her inner turmoil most graphically is the one where she beckons him to come close, then guides his hand up under her dress so that he can pleasure her with a genital rub, followed by a slap to his face as if he had initiated a sexual assault. Clearly she’s confused about everything—her future, the welfare of the siblings under her constant protection, the disappeared assurance of the solidly-entrenched anti-Semitic Reich that her parents had raised her in, and the mixed messages from her own maturing body as to what she needs and from whom to accept it. None of this personal burden is lightened with any humor or the kind of passionate (even though adolescent) love that we get in Beautiful Creatures. Everything in Lore is deadly serious as each day is a struggle for survival as well as a barrage of questions about the validity of the past and the future’s undiscovered country (which may well include death, as the term is used originally in Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the troubled Prince considers his options).
In fact, the serious circumstances of these confused travellers soon become deadly as little Günther is killed by a stray bullet from Russian soldiers chasing after Thomas, who has sneaked into their nighttime camp to steal some food. This tragic turn of events fully saddens the children and pushes Lore further from Thomas, even as they finally find themselves with the option of a train ride to their long-sought destination. Thomas departs before Hamburg, though, somewhat alienated from the Dresslers and now missing the wallet that assures his safe passage, with his family photos and yellow Star of David identification badge. As things turn out, the wallet was pilfered by little Jürgen in a confused, futile attempt to keep Thomas as a fellow traveller with the family, but when Lore looks carefully through it for the first time she finds that the photos are not of the boy she knew at all, that he was simply a German kid using the papers of a dead Jew so as to protect himself from possible arrest. This further complication of everything she had learned and was learning to believe shakes Lore’s confidence in understanding much of anything, even as she’s able to finally get her troupe to her surprised grandmother’s home. Here she should be back in a safe haven, but instead of love for the children and remorse for how a misguided government had destroyed countless lives of Germans and many others throughout Europe all she gets is an authoritarian elder who’s more concerned with table manners and continued embrace of Nazi ideals. Throughout her journey Lore has carried and protected a little ceramic figurine of a deer at rest, a treasure from and memory of her now-lost mother; in Omi’s (Eva-Maria Hagen) house, Lore finds a treasure-trove of such precious little animals but after causing a mild bit of a tantrum that gets her expelled from the lunch table she seeks out these precious miniatures and vigorously smashes all of them into broken fragments. We learn nothing more about what will become of Lore and her siblings as they must struggle to understand a new worldview and set of sociopolitical circumstances far removed from what they were raised to believe, but it’s clear by the end of this film that change has been set in motion within our central character (whose on-screen appearance seems to evolve from older girl to young woman even within the few weeks depicted in this narrative; she literally looks considerably older in these last scenes), which will likely lead to a very challenging life for her, especially as she must confront the remnants of her Nazi heritage within her own surviving family.
Lore is a generally slow-paced, grim, deathly-serious film (as evidenced by my restricted ability to wander off into my usual lengthy asides while writing about it; this film keeps you fully focused on its straightforward, gripping content in every scene), presented in lots of intense closeups on the faces of its troubled characters but well worth your attention if you can find it either now in theatres or later on video, as long as you’re willing to explore the generally-untold story of another aspect of wartime collateral damage, that of innocent children of the former dictators now left lost in purpose and direction as the lies that they were raised on are swept away, leaving them in the difficult position of making sense of new worldviews that contradict everything they formerly understood, generally with no help from their deranged parents in taking and explaining responsibility for the crimes they’ve committed against their fellow citizens (and if you’re willing to submit yourself to reading subtitles if you don’t speak fluent German). My praise for this film has absolutely nothing to do with sympathy for Nazis or their policies, just my sense of acknowledgement that these monsters were falsely preparing their own families for a society that was not to be, forcing their own children into the difficult position of trying to construct a moral compass when none had previously been provided. Rosendahl is mesmerizing in her screen debut just as this film is a unique look at an aspect of war’s devastation that is rarely explored.
Beautiful Creatures, on the other hand, gives us a topic actively portrayed in recent movies—especially the never-ending (or so it seems) Twilight tales—of the clash that occurs when occupants of the separate but overlaid natural and supernatural worlds try to push beyond established boundaries to answer the compelling call of true love (depending on how true you think anyone’s passions are at 16, as in the case of Beautiful Creatures; I know I thought I knew it all then as well, even though it took me until almost age 40 to find a heart connection that truly had substance, despite 1 failed previous marriage and several “This is it!” relationships that weren’t during those intervening years). This movie, like Lore, is based on a novel (by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, 2009), but now the intention is to tap into the lucrative young-adult romance genre that has yielded such effective book and movie ticket sales with the Twilight and Hunger Games series. I think you’ll find aspects of the Star Wars and Harry Potter stories churning through Beautiful Creatures also (but to little avail in its attempt to cash in on romantic tribulations among mortals and supernaturals, so well realized with the Twilight onslaught, because it hasn’t connected so well with audiences, earning a mere $18.5 million gross at the domestic box office after 3 weeks of release— despite the appealing young leads, a script that’s marvelously satirical and witty at times, and some further acting heft with old-pros Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, and Viola Davis in key roles—while something as stupid and exaggerated as Identity Thief [Seth Gordon; review at this blog’s Feb. 14, 2013 posting, where I probably mistakenly gave it 3 stars based on the effective acting of Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy but little else in its silly structure—I’d probably reduce it to 2 ½ in retrospect but second-guessing your aesthetic decisions is a fool’s task if it amounts to editing what’s already been posted, besides I do enough reconstruction of past decisions based on current clearer thinking in my real job, but please don’t tell them how often that has to happen, OK? And aren't you glad that I've regained my stride with these unnecessary and distracting asides? Yes, I agree. Thank you so much.] has already pulled in $107.4 million with just a week more in the theatres), so if you do decide to see it while you can (it’s dropping fast; I could find it in only 2 theatres in the entire San Francisco East Bay area) you’ll find lots of familiarity but also some nice twists to keep up your interest level in this not-astounding-but-still-very-enjoyable riff on the traumas of teenage love.
The main twist for me is the wicked humor in the early parts of the script—which I’ll get to in a bit—taking jabs at the almost-rural-but-decidedly-evangelical environment of Gatlin, S.C. where the story takes place. This fanciful tale of a family of witches—excuse me, Casters, as they prefer to be known, as in “casters of magical spells”—who live in or near a reclusive, dilapidated former plantation home (which is surprisingly sleek and modern on the inside) with a teenager about to enter her destined life direction (of darkness as is the case with her mother and cousin or light, as her father has chosen to be for her benefit—somehow the women who wrote the novel are accepting of their Caster dictates that women are born to a certain fate while men have the choice of perspective as their decisions dictate; as Kenan Thompson would say on Saturday Night Live, “What Up with That?” [which has further relevance for me as the male lead in Beautiful Creatures, Ethan Wate, is played by Alden Ehrenreich, looking to me like a younger version of SNL’s Bill Hader who plays the perennial third guest that never gets a chance to talk, Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, in the “What Up?” sketches) as the moon rises on her 16th birthday is a universe far away from the grim postwar setting of Lore, but it does feature a similar strong female protagonist who ultimately takes command of her situation, refuses to give in to a predestined curse (the horrible heritage of Nazism in the former, an ancestor’s punishment continued onto the present family female members in Beautiful Creatures), and faces directly the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (back to Hamlet again, but there we have a male protagonist who delayed too long “to take arms against a sea of troubles” so that he contributed to a tragic end for his entire family and himself, a result that this week’s empowered girls are determined to avoid—at least for themselves; it’s hard to tell how many members of their families will be salvageable). Alice Englert as Lena Duchannes, a Caster-on-the-cusp of both her womanhood and her appointed-yet-unrevealed destiny, provides a strong presence in her much-less-significant-but-still-very-enjoyable movie, just as Saskia Rosendahl brings a sense of emerging gravitas to her more-serious-but-just-as-conflicted role in Lore. Unlike Lore’s privileged childhood, Lena has moved around a lot with her uncle, Macon Ravenwood (Irons)—both parents are dead—because her emerging powers and extended family's need to keep her from serious entanglements with mortals has left her with the stain of an outcast from the first moment that she walks into a room outside of her secret environment, as demonstrated by her instant rejection on her initial day as a junior at Gatlin High, begun by snotty prom-queen-styled Emily Asher (Zoey Deutch) and furthered by local self-appointed-spiritual-protector Mrs. Lincoln (Thompson). But here we get a soon-to-be-revealed plot complication that Mrs. Lincoln’s been possessed by the spirit of Lena’s not-really-departed mother, Sarafine, who wants her daughter to follow her down the path of evil so she’s occupying a human body because she can’t materially manifest herself while trying to intensify Lena’s frustrations, so as to help turn her to the “dark side.” (Do I really need to explain the spill-over from Voldemort, Darth Vader, and The Emperor here? If so, leave me a note below and I’ll send you a long list of DVDs that you need to rent to enhance your fantasy I.Q.)
Where things get even more complicated for Lena than worrying about following the same destined road-to-ruin that claimed her mother and slightly-older cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) is her early encounter with Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) at Gatlin High where he not only finds himself instantly attracted but also has a sense that Lena is the mysterious girl that he constantly dreams of (which we’ll find out later is all pre-destined as well, because it was his mortal Civil War-ancestor from this area, Ethan Carter, who was the love of Lena’s Caster-ancestor, Genevieve Duchannes, from back in the days when Lena’s family founded Gatlin [for reasons I was never clear about], a situation not only in violation of Caster protocol but also disastrous for Lena’s family ever since because the ancestor broke the further taboo of bringing her dead soldier back to life, thereby creating the family curse [and turning Genevieve to immediate evil, resulting in her killing her lover an instant after reviving him]). Of course, Ethan doesn’t know any of this; all he’s aware of is that Lena is the most interesting interruption of his miserable existence in this backwater holdout from another era (I stumbled onto a lot of those when I was growing up in the South back in the 1950s-‘60s) that has ever entered this life. Ethan's voiceover monologues early in the film provide some hilarious commentary early on in this story (as does Sarafine’s dismissal of human potential in her confrontation with distressed-brother Macon in the middle of the film when most of the plot threads are conveniently unraveled for us), but it’s his determination not to be driven away from Lena despite her family’s objections/concern (depending on which relative we’re talking about) that wins her over completely and sets them on a quest to find some way to reverse the curse, aided by the town librarian, Amma (Davis), who’s like a surrogate mother to Ethan (we know he has a reclusive father as well, although we never see him) but not just out of concern; rather, she’s part of a long family tradition of Seers who have worked with the better elements of Lena’s family to keep these ill-fated young lovers apart so that death doesn’t befall Ethan if Lena inherits her mother’s evil ways (OK, it’s been far enough into this review without an unwarranted but still enjoyable musical break, so here’s the original Santana lineup doing “Evil Ways” at Woodstock in 1969 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPauXWjY4T8). With Lena, Ethan, and Amma all working for weeks right up to the fateful Dec. 21 16th birthday date (in an underground library that’s part of the Caster society’s huge subterranean network; this isn’t the gateway to Hell that underlies Joss Whedon’s setting of Sunnydale, CA for Buffy the Vampire Slayer but it does feel like another borrowed similarity [memo to Ms. Garcia and Ms. Stohl: Your novel must be pretty entertaining if it’s similar to the movie script but you ladies seem to borrow from every influence you ever had from the movies or TV throughout your lives; keep some copyright lawyers on your staff as you may need them someday]), our interest is maintained that Lena will somehow find a solution to avoid the ugly fate that claims so many women in her family.
Ultimately, the answer is that for the curse to be lifted someone that Lena loves must die so we are given another false setup where it seems to be that Ethan has bitten the dust during a re-enactment of the Civil War Battle of Honey Hill (the one that involved the ancestors) at the hands of his clueless friend, Link (Thomas Mann, but not the one who wrote Death in Venice, unless he’s been dabbling in reincarnation himself), who’s under the spell of wicked Ridley (couldn’t resist the photo of her above, in all her devious, slutty glory), as directed by even more wicked Sarafine. We get another twist here, though, because it’s really Macon in the guise of Ethan who takes the fatal bullet, living just long enough to reveal the truth to Lena, who then summons up her full powers, unleashes a storm of Sandy proportions (now that the birthday verification has transpired), and gives her Mom completely-departed status by smashing her into atoms. But now that the family is free of the curse, Lena determines that she’s a new female-entity Caster, able to balance her good and evil natures so she simply maintains a memory-wipe spell on the real Ethan to protect him from any further dangerous involvement with her (Ridley was spared for past good behavior before her “Sour 16” transformation, but something tells me you can find her in active mode every Spring Break at Daytona Beach and maybe in the counting rooms of Congress, tallying up Sequester savings). Just as Beautiful Creatures is set to end on a melancholy note, though, as Ethan starts off to NYC on a college-checkout tour after having a brief conversation with barely-known-to-him Lena he suddenly comes to awareness of his passion for her and starts running back to Gatlin to reclaim his lost lover, just as her binary eyes (one brown, one yellow, indicating her now mixed nature) turn fully brown upon awareness of his breakthrough, leaving us with the clear implication that she’s going to be able to keep her evil possibilities under control just as he’s going to find some way to accommodate himself to living with witchcraft that is presumably strong enough to eventually get him out of his backwoods hometown (after all, if two guys named Dick [York and Sargent] could do it with Samantha [Elizabeth Montgomery] from 1964-1972 on ABC’s Bewitched, then this well-read [Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Salinger’s Cather in the Rye, etc.] stud from South Carolina ought be able to figure it out in the 21st century).
Beautiful Creatures just drips with honeysuckle and wallows in cornpone accents, takes some great potshots at its setting and characters (Ethan: “I envy people in comas.”; Macon, in regard to Ethan: “A voice of reason in a town of buttermilk minds.”), and works only if you’re willing to indulge yourself in its charming, near-plagiaristic elements, but within those confines it’s a pleasant diversion that still carries a hopeful message about female empowerment (and the ability of men to embrace that rather than be fearful of it). I mildly recommend this one for its wit and pleasant frivolity, although compared to the main course that is Lore, Beautiful Creatures is more of a tasty appetizer. And for dessert, if you were wondering if I was going to offer you the musical source of my title for this review, well, of course, so here are The Who (another group of standout performers from the original Woodstock festival, but the upcoming clip isn't from that seminal event) performing one of their signature numbers, “Teenage Wasteland” (more formally known as “Baba O’Riley”), at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SH60OQN8Lzc to keep you occupied until who (or Who) knows what I’ll come up with next week. Thanks for reading. Y'all come back now!
If you want to explore Lore more (sorry, couldn’t resist the alliteration) here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3kZWe6e17k (this site takes you to another one, http://hdcinema.me/, where you can supposedly watch the whole film for free. I’ll leave that up to you.)
If you’d like to look further into the world of Beautiful Creatures here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0uINAE0Qks (a 4 min. featurette on the transition from book to movie with some comments by the authors, director, and actors; and if you want another 8 ½ min. of scene footage from the movie you can get that at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_LKil96eN4 but the audio’s not that great)
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. Have a round on me!
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. Have a round on me!