Friday, August 26, 2011

Opening the Wrong Doors: Sarah's Key

Mélusine Mayanc (centre) in Sarah's Key

Ever since the enormous, and deserved, worldwide success of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Holocaust dramas have become a regular subject in the movies. (There had been films on the Holocaust before, but Schindler’s List appeared to open the floodgates.) With cinema's penchant for trivializing tragedies like the Holocaust, fortunately only a few such movies (Life is Beautiful, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) have descended into that odious category. But many others have fallen short in doing justice to the meaning and events of the Holocaust, an admittedly tall order for what is still such an incomprehensible and unprecedented act. Sarah’s Key (Elle s'appelait Sarah), the latest film release concerning the Holocaust, is one such disappointment.

Based on the popular, and critically acclaimed, novel by French author Tatiana de Rosnay, Sarah’s Key unearths, to a degree, the shocking events in France, during two days in July 1942, when some 13,000 French Jews – mostly women and children – were rounded up in Paris, sent to the Vélodrome d'hiver, kept in appalling and inhumane conditions, and then soon after transported to Auschwitz where most perished. In of itself, this wasn’t unusual – the concentration camps were ultimately the destination for most of Europe’s 11 million Jews and the graveyards for six million of them – but what was unique here is that it was the French police, the gendarmes, who carried out the deportations, even before their German occupiers had ordered them to do so. Sarah’s Key begins on that fateful day when the Starzynski family (mother, father and young daughter) are compelled to hastily leave their home. They comply, but not before Sarah (Mélusine Mayanc), the Starzynski’s 10-year-old daughter, instructs her younger brother, Michel, to hide in a closet and not leave until she returns to retrieve him. She locks him in for good measure and then, still clutching the key, leaves. The rest of the film deals the ramifications of her act. And while the movie’s opening scenes are suitably powerful – you’ll curse the anti-Semitic French when you view them – the film becomes progressively more cluttered, contrived and, finally, off topic.

Kristin Scott Thomas in Sarah's Key

The film, directed and co-written (with Serge Joncour) by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, juxtaposes the experiences of Sarah and her family with the 2009 quest by Paris-based American magazine journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) to find out what happened to the little girl after she and her family was ousted from their home. But the linkage between the two time frames is a tenuous one; Julia and her family are about to move into her in-law’s flat, which belonged to … a certain Jewish family. I don’t mean to belittle that plot contrivance, annoying as it is, but it wasn't really a necessary one. Couldn’t Julia, as a foreigner living in France, and as a reporter simply be intrigued by the story of the deportations? Obviously the screenwriters wanted to use Julia’s husband’s family as a symbolic representation of French complicity, or disinterest, in what happened to many of their fellow Jewish citizens (76,000 of them were eventually deported from France ). But it’s too obvious a plot development, one of many in a film that regrettably eschews subtlety throughout most of its running time.

As Julia continues to investigate the deportations, conveniently assigned to her as a story, the movie begins to shift further and further away from its initial subject. Yes, the movie periodically goes back to Sarah’s tale, but it also spends an awful lot of time on the marital travails of Julia and her husband Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot) – she wants to keep her late-in-life baby, he wants her to have an abortion – a subplot, which stacked up against the real horrors of the Holocaust, cannot help but come across as banal, the appropriate subject, perhaps, of another movie.

French Jews being deported from France
The actors, too, don’t fare well. Thomas gives her usual reliable performance, but mostly Julia is just a human search engine, put in place, to unravel the mysteries of Sarah’s tale. And most of the rest of the cast has little of substance to do. The notable exceptions: Mélusine Mayanc, who’s striking as the determined Sarah, and veteran French actor Niels Arestup (Stavisky, Un prophète), who's touching as an old man who encounters Sarah and comes to love her as his own.

Perhaps, if I hadn’t programmed so many fine documentaries on the Holocaust when I was Director of Programming at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, films which showcased the adage that truth is stranger (and often more moving) than fiction, I might have been more touched by the increasingly belaboured and clunky revelations in Sarah’s Key. But this movie, which isn’t far fetched so much as it’s emotionally flat, also offended me, since it eventually supplants the tragedy of French Jewry in favour of the viewpoint of a non-Jewish woman who posses the most fragile of links to that moment in history. That’s likely an inadvertent outcome of the movie, but it does a disservice to what actually happened in France. That important story, which wasn’t officially acknowledged in France until a few years ago, is also one that hasn’t really been dealt with much in the movies.

Alain Cohen and Michel Simon in The Two of Us
It was referenced in the underwhelming Canadian film Emotional Arithmetic (2007), and was also the subject of La Rafle (The Round Up), a 2010 French movie which played in Toronto, but so quickly I never got to it. Sarah’s Key thus may serve as an educational primer for someone who knows little of that history, but there are much better Holocaust-themed films from France, which better illuminate the realities of French anti-Semitism and the plight of France’s Jews. I’m thinking of Le vieil homme et l'enfant (The Two of Us), Claude Berri’s lovely, poignant autobiographical 1967 drama about the unlikely relationship between an anti-Semitic farmer and the Jewish boy sent to stay with him in the French countryside during the war; Michel Deville’s gentle 2002 film Un monde presque paisible (Almost Peaceful), which detailed the goings-on of a group of French Jews who survived the war and returned, shattered, to Paris, in the hopes of finding other family members who they desperately hope may have also escaped the fate of so many of their compatriots; and La maison de Nina (Nina’s Home) (2005), Holocaust survivor Richard Dembo’s impactful, fact-based movie about a group home that sheltered traumatized Jewish kids during the war. Compared to those movies, Sarah’s Key doesn't register much.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute and in September will be teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also in the fall, he'll be teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto.


  1. I don't think the subject of abortion is trivial and out of place at all in this movie. Especially when one considers the last scene, Julia naming her daughter (whom her husband wanted to exterminate) Sarah. It's obvious to many that the author makes a clear connection between the Holocaust and Abortion. Like it or leave it, it's a wake up call and someday, decades from now, will a new generation think abortion a crime against humanity as they consider the Holocaust today?

    1. I totally agree.To turn one's head to such horrors is equally as bad yet it is done every day...and in an even more horriffic degree.

  2. I do think the movie has merit and connects us to the present of ongoing brutality we too often chose to ignore. I don’t think the movie story is about abortion, yet it does make a case for a strong woman who follows her moral compass, lives her life in a complex world, and makes a deliberate choice of having her child. Asking the relevance of history within the context of a person’s life is not trivial!
    There are great movies on the holocaust and the historical time period. One movie in German with English subscript is Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Die letzten Tage). This movie speaks to the convictions of a German student executed for her written efforts to end WWII. If one wants history of past and recent systematic genocide, watch the PBS series on Auschwitz. In this series, there is expert commentary, teaching guides, and learning resources which clearly provides ongoing present day history of largely ignored genocide. As humans is it our nature to hate, blame and kill others that do not fit our culture, ethnicity, race etc.?

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  4. You must be truly daft or devoid of any moral compass not to see the corollary to her abortion and the holocaust.if you turn your head to such as the French and Germans did i am afraid you have learned nothing from history.