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.