REVIEW: “Sarah’s Key”


Movies depicting the Holocaust and the plight of the Jewish people during the Nazi reign can be some of the most potent and emotional movies to watch. There have been several films that have taken a broader look at the subject while others choose to tell more personal stories. Either way, I remain fascinated at how skilled filmmakers can still remind us of this deep and devastating scar on our world’s history through truly powerful cinema. “Sarah’s Key” is another example of that. This film may not carry the weight of bigger Holocaust pictures, but it tells a stirring and sobering story that I really responded to.

The movie jumps back and forth in time and tells two interconnected stories. The first takes place during the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in Paris on July 16th 1942. It was the early morning mass arrest of over 13,000 Jews by French Police in a broader effort to placate the Nazis. The arrested Jews, of which nearly 10,000 were women and children, were taken to internment camps and eventually to Auschwitz for “extermination”. What made this even more despicable was the complicity of the French government and police, something France had failed to publicly own up to until 1995. It’s in this environment that we’re introduced to young Sarah Starzynski.


I found Sarah’s story to be the most interesting and certainly the most powerful. While playing under the covers of her bed, Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) and her little brother Michel are startled by a loud knocking on the front door. It’s a French policeman there to take them into custody as the roundup begins. Before Michel can be noticed Sarah hides him in a closet and makes him promise not to leave. She locks the door, hides the key in her pocket, and is soon taken away with her parents.

The other story starts in Paris in 2009 when an American journalist named Julia (Kristin Scott-Thomas) and her French husband Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot) inherit an apartment from his grandparents. It turns out the apartment came into the family over 65 years earlier, around the same time as the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Julia had recently wrote a piece on this sad part of French history so naturally she wants to know more about the house’s history.

We are told both of these stories in chunks. Co-writer and director Gilles Paquet-Brenner does a pretty good job of moving back and forth between stories although there are some fairly awkward transitions. And I mentioned that Sarah’s story is easily the more riveting and interesting of the two but that’s not to say Julia’s story is bad. In fact I liked it. But her story is hampered by a few plot points that just don’t work within the context of this film. These are mainly found in the relationship between her and her husband. Julia finds out that she’s pregnant and we learn that she’s had some difficult and failed pregnancies in the past. Bertrand doesn’t want the baby and is perfectly content with their life the way it is. This entire dynamic ends up playing a significant role in Julia’s life and it leads to a nice moment later in the film, but overall it feels underdeveloped and quite honestly insignificant compared to the horror that Sarah and her family are facing.


But when it comes down to it, I like the way both stories come together. It’s not as surprising or profound as it could have been but I found it to be satisfying. Julia has several good moments as she digs deeper to connect her husband’s family to the Starzynskis. But it’s the strength of Sarah’s story that makes the joining of these two narratives work. I was consumed with watching Sarah’s difficult and heartbreaking life unfold. It’s brilliantly told both visually and through the script and it never shoves too much in your face. It’s respectful and reserved yet it maintains an authentic emotional punch.

A big hunk of the movie’s success is due to some standout performances. Kristen Scott-Thomas is a fine actress and her flawless American accent and fluent French gives Julia a natural believability. She also never overplays her scenes. But even better was Mélusine Mayance as young Sarah. I know we could get into the whole ‘How much of a child performance is acting or directing’ debate, but I thought she was magnificent. Niels Arestrup is another familiar face in the film who’s always good. There’s also two relatively unknowns who are wonderful here. Natasha Mashkevich really caught my attention as Sarah’s mother and Charlotte Poutrel is great in a much smaller role as an older Sarah. In her few scenes we see a beautiful but scarred young woman and it’s clear the events of her past have left a terrible mark.

“Sarah’s Key” is a movie that completely slipped under my radar. During my recent examination of French cinema I stumbled across this picture and I am glad I did. It’s a smart and respectful story whose only fault is that it tries to do too much. With a little more culling this could have been a tighter and more concise picture. But even considering that, this is a very good movie that’s both responsible and deeply moving. It may not be listed among the best overall movies about the Holocaust, but there are parts of this film that I would put up against any other.



Many movies have looked at the Jewish Holocaust from a variety of different angles. There have been films that examined it through the eyes of children, those that have focused on specific regions, and others that show individuals who went to great lengths to help the persecuted Jews. A well done movie on the subject always has a strong effect on me. It’s not just the terrible things and disturbing images that filmmakers are showing us, but it’s the fact that they are dealing with a very real and devastating time in our world’s history. The Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews marks one of the world’s darkest times. But it’s also a period that should never be forgotten and there are several films that help us remember.

While many movies have done an excellent job responsibly depicting events surrounding the Holocaust, Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie “Schindler’s List” is the one that has had the strongest impact on me personally. I recently had an opportunity to revisit the film. It had been several years since I had last saw it and with good reason. It’s not an easy movie to watch. It features some of the most realistic and graphic depictions of Nazi violence and mistreatment of the Jews and doesn’t shy away from presenting it in a crushing and penetrating way. From their initial relocation to Krakow’s Jewish Ghetto to their brutal and deadly time spent in the Nazi extermination camps, we see the Jews experience all forms of cruelty and brutality made more disturbing by its roots in reality.

The Jewish plight is brilliantly and cleverly shown through the true story of Oskar Schindler. Schindler, played wonderfully by Liam Neeson, is a German businessman who arrives in occupied Krakow in hopes of making a load of money exploiting the war. At first, Schindler is a self-absorbed, money-hungry man who quickly finds acceptance by kissing up to an assortment of high-ranking German SS officers. Through bribes and his Nazi Party membership, Schindler obtains several contracts to make metal pots and pans for the German soldiers in the field. To secure even more money for himself, he brings in a Jewish workforce who work considerably cheaper than the local Catholic Poles. To keep his fledgling company up and going, he hires Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), an accomplished Jewish accountant and highly regarded member of the Jewish community. It’s through this relationship that Schindler begins to see his perceptions change.

Coinciding with SS Officer Amon Goeth’s (Ralph Fiennes) arrival at the Plaszow concentration camp, the Germans raid and empty the Krakow Ghetto, shipping Jews to the camp and slaughtering almost 2,000 in the streets. As Schindler witnesses the atrocities taking place, he’s deeply troubled and an internal conflict begins between his desire for a money-making business and his growing affection for his Jewish workers. He struggles with the temptation to take his money and leave the city. Instead he sets out to use his fortune to try to save his workers and as many other Jews as he can. To do so requires him to get close to high-ranking Nazi’s like Goeth making it all the more difficult.

The story of Oskar Schindler and his personal transformation is quite moving and Liam Neeson is nothing short of brilliant in his portrayal. Neeson’s Schindler is a confident and looming opportunist. Even Spielberg’s camera makes him stand head and shoulders about so many of the people he is in contact with. That’s just one reason the ending is so stirring (I’ll leave it at that for those who haven’t seen the film). I was particularly enamored with the relationship between Schindler and Stern. You initially see the two on a strictly business level. Neither really like or trust the other. But as mentioned, it’s this growing friendship that plays a key role in Schindler’s transformation. I talked about the fantastic work of Neeson. Let me just say Kingsley is equally good and I still view this as his very best performance.

I also have to take time to praise Ralph Fiennes and his incredible work as Goeth, easily one of the most detestable villains on film. Fiennes visually captures this sick and twisted personification of evil. While Schindler does find ways to manipulate Goeth, his ingrained wickedness never goes away and we see it on display through some of the movie’s more disturbing scenes. What makes the character more frightening is that the movie doesn’t stray that far in its portrayal of the real Amon Goeth. He was a sadistic cold-hearted murderer who is said to have killed close to 550 Jews himself. That’s not counting the thousands he sent to be executed. Spielberg included several scenes that show Goeth’s murderous tendencies including his penchant for sniping Jewish workers in the camp from the terrace of his château on the hill. This sick bit of reality only makes the character more despicable and Fiennes sell it perfectly.

“Schindler’s List” is also a technical achievement. Spielberg’s decision to shoot it in black and white was perfect. It gives the movie an added feel of authenticity and when mixed with the frequent hand-held camera work and strategically placed wide angled shots, it makes you believe you’re watching a documentary. The clever style of several scenes almost resemble old film footage of the actual events. It’s that convincing. The movie was shot in a way that resembled a more classic style of filmmaking but yet never shied away from the harsh reality it was depicting. The movie was helped by being filmed on or near the locations of the actual events. Spielberg’s desire for realism really pays off and the locations were a big part of it. But that same desire for realism also made filming difficult for the director. It’s been said he cried repeatedly during the filming and there were certain scenes he literally couldn’t watch.

While “Schindler’s List” is a great film, it can also be a difficult movie for audiences to watch. It’s a movie that’s sometimes painful and emotionally draining. But it’s also a film of immense power and the deepest sincerity. It’s a visually stunning war picture that makes you feel as though you are witnessing these horrific events first-hand. It’s also a story of incredible personal transformation in the middle of some of our world’s darkest moments. The performances are outstanding and Spielberg’s direction bypasses most of the other work on his resume. It’s a stirring historical drama that reminds me of the power movies have to entertain us, to move us, and inform us. It’s also a reflection on a time that we should never forget and events we should never repeat.