Movie Review: A town without pity

Holocaust horror doesn’t mix well with present-day soap operas in ‘Sarah’s Key.’

Woman in Sarah's Key movie (photo credit: Courtesy)
Woman in Sarah's Key movie
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This movie adaptation of the wildly popular novel Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is a serious look at the round-up and murder of more than 13,000 Parisian Jews in the summer of 1942 and at the complicity of the French government (particularly the police force) in this gruesome event. On the other, it is a glossy modern-day soap opera which, due to plot contrivances, brings its contemporary heroine into the story of a Jewish child who was taken in the round-up. At its heart is a horrifying plot turn that diminishes any interest the audience might have in the present-day story. It’s a valiant attempt to make the horrors of the Holocaust real and vivid for today’s audience, but whenever it gets too intense, the scene changes and we switch to the soap opera, which constantly suffers by contrast to the drama of the past era.
Julia (British actress Kristen Scott Thomas, best known for her role in The English Patient, playing an American here with a rather clunky accent) is a journalist who lives in Paris with her French husband and daughter in 2002. They are renovating his grandparents’ apartment in the Marais section, once the Jewish quarter. Julia writes for the kind of serious news magazine that doesn’t really exist anymore, and she convinces her editor to let her write an article commemorating the 60th anniversary of the round-up of Jews in July 1942.
Her story is transposed with that of Sarah (Melusine Mayance), a Jewish girl around 10 who lives in Paris with her family during that fateful summer. When the knock on the door comes at night, Sarah’s father is already hiding in the basement. Sarah’s mother (Natasha Mashkevich) doesn’t expect the French police to arrest the whole family, but they do – including the father. Quick-thinking Sarah tells her little brother to hide in the cabinet and locks him in, promising they will come back for him soon. As foolish as this choice seems to all concerned in retrospect, it’s easy to see how a child would do this. As Sarah and her parents sit for days in the Velodrome d’Hiver, the Parisian cycling stadium where the Jews were kept in filthy conditions – that led to chaos, panic and suicides – she is tormented and tries as best she can to get someone to rescue her brother. She clutches her key to the cabinet and sits with her parents. The dream of any normalcy is soon stripped away. While Sarah’s story takes several improbable turns, most Holocaust survivors did get by due to this kind of luck.
The relatively brief scenes in the Velodrome are terrifying and far better conceived and staged than those in La Rafle, a movie that covered similar ground. The urgency to rescue the brother and the false hope that the family will stay together in some temporary new home gives poignancy to a situation we’ve seen before on film, and these scenes are really moving.
Julia’s story is interesting only insofar as it intersects with Sarah’s. The major part of Sarah’s story is revealed halfway through the film, and then the movie begins to sink under a mass of clichés. When a character is described as “being drawn to new horizons,” that character is actually shown at the edge of the ocean, looking toward the horizon. Although there is some suspense up till the end about Sarah’s eventual fate, nothing can match the intensity of the early scenes of terror.
The fact that Julia is drawn to investigating the round-up even before she learns of a family connection to Sarah’s story is one of the less graceful plot contrivances. But that isn’t nearly as damaging to the movie as the usual contradiction inherent in mainstream films about the Holocaust – the need to produce something resembling a feel-good ending in a story about the mass murder of innocents. The crumbs of happiness the filmmakers find to soothe us with are that learning Sarah’s story helps Julia come to terms with her own problems, a neat resolution that trivializes the story the filmmakers mean to illuminate.