Interesting at Times as an Historical Piece, but Ultimately Disappointing As a Movie
While there is a lot to like about Sarah’s Key, particularly the presence of the exotic and wonderfully aloof Kristin Scott Thomas, in the end I felt exploited in much the same fashion as I did with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008). Though both films deal with the most heart wrenching of themes, namely a small boy in mortal peril during the Holocaust, I felt more cheapened and outraged by what was supposed to be a heartfelt and gut wrenching dénouement.
While the aforementioned The Boy in the Striped Pajamas [Spoiler Alert] centered on two young boys, one German and one Jewish, going hand in hand to their death in an extermination camp’s gas chamber, Sarah’s Key is a bit more subtle with its boy in peril plot. Here, we find Julia, a journalist played by Ms. Thomas, in modern-day Paris investigating the all but forgotten moment in July of 1942 where Parisian police, doing the horrific dirty work of their Nazi occupiers, arresting and then interring over 20,000 Jews in what is now known as the Vel d’Hiv Roundup. Most of these French citizens ended up dying in Auschwitz, which serves to explain why the French would rather ignore this minor flaw in their national character.
What complicates Julia’s journalistic efforts is her discovery that the apartment she and her husband are about to buy from his parents actually belonged to a Jewish family (the Strazynskis) who disappeared in the 1942 purge. Though Julia learns that the Strazynski parents were put to death, it appears that their two young children somehow survived. Obsessed with finding out their destiny, Julia ends up on a painful emotional journey that leads to a ghastly discovery.
Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner effectively tells the story of Julia’s journey by flashing back to critical scenes in 1942, and the movie is at its best when dealing with the Strazynski family after they were taken into custody. Many of the scenes are so gripping as to be almost unwatchable. For example, we see over 18,000 Jews confined to an indoor amphitheater for over three days without food, water or any sanitation, and it makes what happened at the Super Dome during Hurricane Katrina look like a Sunday School picnic.
But what truly comes close to ripping your heart out flows from the fact that the young Strazynski girl, Sarah, succeeded in hiding her young brother in a small wall closet when the family was being taken into custody by police, locking him in with the admonition, “Don’t leave until I come and get you.” As we follow the Strazinsky family as they are eventually taken to a temporary internment camp to await deportation, we see an increasingly agonized father, mother and little girl wondering what has happened to that little boy. In particular, once Sarah is separated from her parents, she is obsessed with getting back to her brother with the key that will free him, and her single-minded dedication temporarily makes this film soar. After she escapes from the camp, she finds refuge with a kindly farm family who not only protect her, but eventually adopt her as one of their own children.
Niels Arestrup is quietly powerful as Jules Dufaure, the tender-hearted farmer who risks the safety of his family to protect young Sarah. It is hard to believe that this is the same Mr. Arestrup who was so malevolently chilling as the sadistic, Corsican mafioso in the Oscar nominated gangster/prison film A Prophet (2009).
Nonetheless, there is no denying that Sarah’s Key becomes more like a daytime soap opera the longer it lasts. Once young Sarah’s quest is realized, we are largely left back in 2010 where Julia is wrestling with the consequences. The movie noticeably loses steam as it evolves into little more than a threadbare tale of a tortured woman’s marriage going bad as she pays the emotional cost of her journalistic pursuit of the truth.
It is a tribute to the fabulously talented Ms. Scott Thomas that this film holds together on any level. Though having much less to work with, she is as convincing here as she was in her role as Mimi, John Lennon’s devoted aunt in the absolutely wonderful Nowhere Boy (2009), not to mention the tortured mother who was just released from a lengthy prison sentence following her conviction of killing her son in the very powerful I’ve Loved You So Long (2008).
I should note that several years ago I traveled to France with three friends as we visited numerous historical sites primarily relating to World War I and World War II. In that regard, it is impossible to view the cemeteries at Normandy without being emotionally overwhelmed.
The memorial at Verdun, which contains the names of well over 300,000 men who died there, also has numerous rooms where the countless bones of the unknown dead have been separated. As you stare at various rooms, one containing only human skulls, another only femurs, etc., you are left with the unavoidable memory that an entire generation of Europe’s young men was wiped out between 1914 and 1918. You have to resist dropping to your knees as Charleton Heston did at the end of the original Planet of the Apes (1968) and join him in screaming at mankind, “Damn you, damn you all to hell.”
In our journey we also visited a small memorial that is all but hidden in rural France which marks the railway depot where these 20,000 Jews seen in Sarah’s Key were sent to their death. Standing there at that crossing, you are reminded that a civilized people stood by and said nothing as entire families disappeared.
While Sarah’s Key is not in any way a great movie, and in many ways not even a good movie, it does provide a reminder as how close every society is to slipping back into our barbaric past. I dare say that it is worth remembering that we proud Americans are the very people that all but exterminated Native Americans as we continued our unquenchable desire to move west and take their land. We are the people who enslaved our fellow man for centuries, only freeing them after a vicious Civil War that resulted in over 600,000 deaths. And we are also the Americans who so recently justified torture of enemy combatants, the very tactics that the Nazis and their French collaborators used in World War II.
The elemental value of movies like Sarah’s Key is to cause us to ponder our destiny. When movies are made 50 years from now about our country’s conduct during the so-called War on Terror, will people be asking the same questions that we are asking the French seen here in 1942, namely “What in God’s name were you thinking? How could you stand idly by and do nothing?”
Well, how could we?