Somersault’s themes of sexual awakening and awkward adolescent longings and confusions are very much at the forefront here, albeit in decidedly more perilous and grave circumstances. Picking up at the end of the Second World War in south-western Germany, five children are cast adrift from their parents after their SS officer father is arrested, and soon after, their stoic and detached mother turns herself in. 14 year-old Lore, the eldest of the children, has the mantle of sole provider thrust upon her, and must plot a hazardous journey with her siblings (with includes a baby sister) to their grandmother’s place in the north.
The harsh rural landscape holds little sanctity, and the brother and sisters are saved from being separated early on at a border patrol by the mysterious Thomas, who claims to be a Jewish survivor of a German prison camp. Lore is initially full of resentment towards the older teenager, but she is forced to rely on his help whilst battling with burgeoning feeling of her own towards him.
Perhaps unsurprising given the subject matter, there is little in the way of light here. This is a heavy-going, oppressive and incredibly sobering coming-of-age tale, but like Somersault, there’s an assured confidence from behind the camera. With her intimate hand-held style (via Snowtown cinematographer Adam Arkapaw), Shortland creates an impressively tactile feel within the environment, from the boggy marshland the kids are forced to wearily traverse, to the dilapidated, unsanitary buildings and makeshift camps which offer only a modicum of shelter. The director is a skilled and insightful visual storyteller, and really captures that sense of doom, painting a painfully vivid portrayal of a country in turmoil, and picking out the detail in the squalor and suffering. It’s rare to see the aftermath of Germany following the disintegration of the Third Reich captured on film, and the absolute fear and confusion that creates is expertly handled.
Young actress Saskia Rosendahl who plays the titular character (short for ‘Hannelore’) is very impressive, and Shortland’s decision to keep her pretty unsympathetic at times adds another dimension of human frailty to proceedings, and reminds the viewer that she isn’t necessarily some kind of sainted figure. Those conflicted and often selfish feelings someone her age struggles with don’t disappear when they’re suddenly fast tracked to the role of adult.
It’s unremittingly bleak and gloomy (the ending offers little in the way of contentment or resolution) but it’s also a fascinating journey of survival in a land which suddenly shifts from hospitable to hostile, and Rosendah’s central performance captivates throughout. A tough yet rewarding viewing experience.