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When her debut feature Somersault took home 13 AFI Awards in 2004, the cinematic world opened up for its young writer/director, Cate Shortland. While the film's stars, Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington, went onto Hollywood careers, Shortland went to ground. Her first shoot had been difficult and the kind of substantive project needed to coax the Temora-born filmmaker back behind the camera all-too-rare. It finally materialised in the form of Rachel Seiffert's novel, The Dark Room, the story of teenage girl Hannelore, 'Lore' for short, and the journey she takes with her orphaned siblings across the German countryside as the ideals of her beloved Fuhrer and the genocidal agenda of his government collapses. With the Audience Award at the Locarno Film Festival already in the bag and its Toronto campaign about to launch, SCREEN-SPACE sat with Shortland on the eve of the film's Australian release and found the director, charming to a fault, in a remarkably candid frame-of-mind...

Let’s go back to the source material, Rachel Seiffert’s novel The Dark Room. What were the most crucial elements of the book that you felt had to translate to the screen?

The thing we really struggled with, the core of the book, is that [Seiffert] is treating these people like human beings, so she never actually says. “Oh, look at this Nazi monster.” But she also never says, “Look at the poor Germans, aren’t they sad victims.” She walked this really amazing tightrope, where she manages to maintain a fair degree of distance from the politics, instead just letting the reader make up their own minds. And usually, when people write about these subjects, they will naturally define who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. And she never does that. (Maintaining that) was really tricky when we were writing the script and we fought and fought to get that balance right.

Lore is a superbly photographed work. Tell me how you and DP Adam Arkapaw (pictured conferring, below) developed the film’s visual language.

Adam showed me a film called Ballast, which I think was the directorial debut of the production designer from Batman, and it was astounding. And I showed him a lot of different things. Then we collaborated really closely with Silke Fischer, our own incredibly fabulous production designer, who had a really tough time because the budget for a period film like this was just a joke! For Adam and I, our rationale was that we didn’t want it to look like a stodgy period film. I was influenced by Claude Lanzmann’s film, Shoah, because that film featured people who were in the camps. They talked to one man who was in Belarus and he says, “Claude, look at this field, look at all these beautiful flowers. This is what it was like when they were murdering us.” That is also why there is a lot of nature in the film, because our lives are transient but nature keeps moving on.

You’ve said that the comparisons to Somersault are coincidental. But (producer) Liz Watts got the book in front of your husband (director, Tony Krawitz) and (UK producer) Paul Welsh got the book in front of you. They clearly felt the material may have played to your strengths. Do you still feel the two works are so distinctly unrelated?

I can concede that [the lead characters] are both the same age and are both dealing with their sexuality. They both don’t fully understand their sexuality, how they use it and what that means. But I think Heidi (Abbie Cornish; pictured, right) almost has Aspbergers and displays that from the start of the film; she almost has no moral self-knowledge from the beginning of the film to the end. But Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is fiercely intelligent and politicized. She starts the film in this very stringent way of thinking and ends the film in a place of ambiguity. Who am I? What is my society? What is my life? She is asking all these questions. Heidi and Lore have really different trajectories.

As the father of an 11 year-old girl, I watch her viewing the world with an inquisitive, questioning eye but not always with the knowledge to interpret it. Is this early teen character-type, especially with regard to Heidi and Lore, a strong dramatic canvas to work with?

Yes, it is. Also, when we adopted our son, or when we started the whole process, he was 11. Now, he is 18. So I was thrown into his adolescence (laughs), parenting his adolescence. And I think that had a really big influence on this film because it allowed me to understand the story and themes from his perspective. I wasn’t looking at it from the point of view of a 41 year-old and trying to look back at myself. Rather I was living with an adolescent and relating that experience to the character of Lore.

The locations you chose were the sites of many horrific occurrences during the time the film is set. How did the details that history provides infuse the production and your storytelling?

It was hugely influential. We did the 'recce' four years before the film was made, or even funded, because we knew we didn’t want to use any digital effects. In the end, I think we’ve got five effects in the whole film and they are just things like bullet wounds. So we knew we had to find locations that would work on a limited budget. When we arrived in Eastern Germany, we immediately went to Goerlitz, on the Polish border, which is where one of the first concentration camps had been. That was used as a location in the film, though [initially] I didn’t even know that the site was what was left of the camp. There is no plaque or placard or anything on the site. And other locations in the film, like the armaments factory, that was a slave labour site, and we used two big houses for exteriors and then interiors, that were the homes of Jewish merchants who were taken away in the early 1930s. My husband said the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, in the house on the first day of shooting because no one knew what happened to the families.

Being of Jewish heritage yourself and being married to a German-Jew (pictured, below, with husband Tony Krawitz), what impact did dealing with this time in history and the plight of these characters have you upon you?

It has been a massive learning experience that I just didn’t realise would happen to me. What has been really good is that we have been living in Germany and we have got German friends. Germans look at their history and examine their past more than any other country on Earth, so there is a total transparency with the people we are around regarding what has happened. That taught us a lot and has also taught us that here in Australia we just don’t talk about our history and there is no transparency.

Was your teenage lead, Saskia Rosendahl (pictured, below), aware of the details of her homeland’s past when first approached about the role?

Yes, she’s a high-school student and every high-school student goes through an intensive process of looking at The Holocaust and of the German people’s involvement in The Holocaust. It is taught from the point of view that ‘They’ did it, that those people back then did it, and I think the way in which both the film and the book differs from that is that it says, “My family did it.” And that is still a very hard thing to confront in Germany. You just don’t meet people in Germany who will say, “My grandfather was in the SS.” People still find it very hard to personalise it.

You mentioned earlier that it taught you more about the role of genocide in Australia’s past...

Compared to Australia and how we deal with our history, [Germans] are about 200 percent ahead of us. We have no national day of mourning, nothing. There are massive amounts of money that go into health, education and employment programs, and that is something we can be really proud of. But until we make a big space in all our minds and in mainstream Australia that indigenous people are a part of our society and are a part to be rejoiced...well, that just hasn’t happened. Why is that? Why is it so hard for us? Why do we have this fear and hatred of these people? That [that attitude] is part of our culture, I find really fascinating. I feel very sad about it.

So how does the current social standing of Aborigines compare to that of the Jewish community in Germany?

The Jewish community in Germany is one of the fastest growing communities in the world. They feel really comfortable and welcome and are part of the national community.

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