by director Cate Shortland
In a crowded foyer in Edinburgh I was given the book The Dark Room by the Scottish producer Paul Welsh. My first feature film Somersault had just screened.
Four years later we were working together on adapting Lore, the central novella from the book, and as it is a type of road movie through Germany, he suggested a preliminary location recce. The locations were extremely important to the story, as we had a limited budget and could not afford big digital effects and complicated sets. The film takes place as the war is ending in Germany, 1945. We knew we had to find “real” places.
We started in Bavaria, driven by a strapping “Tom of Finland” locations manager. It was summer and I became increasingly terrified as every place we visited had strong echoes of The Sound of Music. I was looking for scary Grimm’s fairy tale forests and we were in meadows surrounded by fields of flowers, tourists traipsing past us, enjoying the perfect vistas. Finally we found a very old farmhouse in a dark valley. It felt right.
On our last day in Bavaria I asked our driver “Tom” if he could please take me to Dachau concentration camp. He became very familiar, perhaps emboldened by our near departure. He decided to tell Paul and I his family’s perspective on the Holocaust. Really, he explained, not many people liked the Jews in Germany before the war. For instance his mother had worked for a Jewish lawyer, and this guy was really ‘mean and selfish.’ We were nearing Dachau, driving past plumbing warehouses and wholesale gardening supplies shops. I started to cry, staring out the window at passing suburbia. He continued. Really, most Jews are cheats. I told him I was Jewish and today was Yom Kippur and to please keep his opinions to himself. He was nonchalant, telling me not to worry, Dachau is open every day, even Christmas.
We continued our journey through Germany with another driver. We travelled up the Czech border, through incredible forests and mountains, towards the small city of Gorlitz. It sits right on the border of Poland and Germany. The Reader was shooting and we dined a few nights with friends on the crew. Our days were spent exploring the empty mansions that litter the city. Many had been owned by Jewish merchants.
We were told about an incredible 400-year-old farmhouse outside the city. We were accompanied by a young translator from Berlin and an elderly architecture specialist. We arrived at the farmhouse two hours late, exhausted after searching locations all day and getting lost. It was dark. The farmhouse was surrounded by fields, and in the style of the region had a large cobbled central courtyard. The young farmer came out and welcomed us warmly. He opened the impressive gates to the courtyard and revealed 50 or 60 men, all in black shirts, drinking beer around big barrels of fire. Paul and I were impressed, it was positively medieval. Our translator from Berlin looked very grim as the architecture specialist explained that all these men in black shirts were Scout Masters from across Germany.
We were given a tour of the house, completely original, no electricity, not a whisper of modernity. The family were in 1930s costumes, the farmer's wife was even wearing a dirndl. Obviously no TV. The kids don’t go to school, so they are not polluted by the “Outside.”
They grow everything they eat. I whispered to the translator, thinking I was very funny, “They are like German Amish.” She whispered back, “not really, they are fascists.” The Black shirted men singing folk songs were not Scout Masters but Neo Nazis. We left.
Four years later we were in pre-production. We were using many of the locations we had scouted. The Nazi Farmhouse was not on the list. My production designer was based in Hamburg and I journeyed up on the train to see her. Her husband picked me up at the station and told me he had a surprise for me. We wheeled my suitcase through the streets until we came to a shopping mall, “The Mercado.” He beckoned me inside enthusiastically. It was pretty dim, not exactly top end. I was feeling confused, especially when he led me to the food hall. I told him I wasn’t hungry. He pointed to a wall of plaques and a large Jewish star by the escalators. He then informed me that all these sushi bars and curry houses were standing on what used to be a Jewish Cemetery. People were woofing down burgers where gravestones once stood. We left.
We started shooting six weeks later in Gorlitz. Our German producer arrived on set and said the police had visited the production office. They kindly advised we shouldn’t allow our 17-year-old video split operator (my son Jonathan) to walk around town alone. He is African-Australian. I laugh when people tell me fascism is dead. Making this film has been an incredible trip through Germany, past and present. They deal with their history every day, with far more transparency than my own county. But often this film has led me to strange and scary places and I have felt trapped, like Alice, in a world where everything is curiouser and curiouser.