Rightly or wrongly, the term 'Holocaust film' is often greeted with cynicism in Oscar-watching circles, where the Academy's perennial recognition of cinema centered on that period of history as something of a running joke. 

It's not entirely a fair one, of course. 70-odd years on, the atrocities of Nazi Germany remain so vast, so politically and socially pervasive, that one can hardly blame filmmakers for continually seeking new angles within it – it's a story that will never be completely told.

The Academy's appreciation of the subject's enduring artistic relevance covers such films as “Schindler's List,” “The Pianist” and “The Reader,” but it's in the Best Foreign Language Film category where it reveals itself most consistently. The number of Holocaust-themed films nominated in the category over the years, up to and including last year's “In Darkness,” has led some more jaded pundits to dismiss any such submission as awards bait of sorts. However, if Cate Shortland's superb new film “Lore” – Australia's Oscar submission, though wholly German-set and spoken – follows in their footsteps, it won't be because it comfily ticks any boxes. 

Portraying the dying days of the Third Reich via the semi-biographical story of Lore, the eldest child of a high-ranking Nazi family, left to fend for herself and her younger siblings when her parents surrender to Allied forces, it’s a film that bravely inverts the perspective of many a Holocaust drama. It’s a Nazi who’s the victim here, albeit a chilly one: the adolescent girl’s inscrutable behavior gradually reveals the crippling degrees of prejudice she’s been brainwashed into holding, and the film makes it clear that deprogramming is going to be an even longer journey than her cross-country trek to safety. 

Though the film is based on proven source material – one segment of British novelist Rachel Seiffert’s Booker-shortlisted triptych novel “The Dark Room,” in turn based on the experiences of Seiffert’s mother – Shortland admits to being nervous when her producer first suggested she tackle the story. 

“The perspective was scary, in terms of doing a film from the perpetrators’ – or their children’s – point of view,” she says over the phone from Australia, where she’s home after a day spent shooting on a new Gallipoli-themed miniseries for local TV. She explains that she’d first been drawn to other strands of Seiffert’s novel with Jewish protagonists. “We kind of knew Lore’s story was less explored territory, and we worried that people would think that we weren’t considering the atrocities that had happened.” 

Much of the difficulty lay with the characterization of Lore herself – a prickly figure not immediately sympathetic to viewers, but one whose complicated psychological arc is braided with more fundamental coming-of-age concerns. “Early on, people who read the script said that if I asked the viewer to inhabit Lore, I was going to have a problem,” says Shortland. “But in a funny way I think I did inhabit her, and that came as a shock.” 

Shortland’s acclaimed first feature, 2004’s “Somersault,” was also preoccupied with teen sexuality in an unstructured social environment. “Somersault” was the film that launched Abbie Cornish to stardom, and “Lore” features a similarly revelatory talent in classically trained dancer and first-time actress Saskia Rosendahl. Initially rejected for being too beautiful – “an Aryan goddess,” says Shortland – she finally impressed the director with her combination of serenity and “an amazing kind of combustion.” 

“It’s a bit of a kick in the guts when Lore just comes out with the National Socialist propaganda and the anti-Semitism. Because first you’re thinking about how pure and brave this poor girl is, looking after her brother and sisters, but at the same time she’s kind of a monster – a monster created by her time.” 

Meeting the woman on whom Lore herself is based, meanwhile, also helped Shortland make emotional sense of the character. “I’ve met Rachel Seiffert’s mother and her aunt, and the thing that strikes me about them is that they still carry this enormous burden: the crimes that were committed were not their crimes, but it’s their blood. How do you live with that? How do you equate that with somebody that you really love?” She adds that Seiffert’s mother has now seen the film three times, describing her reaction as “very complicated.”

Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.