REVIEW: “Sarah’s Key”

SARAHS KEY POSTER

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.

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I found Sarah’s story to be the most interesting and certainly the most powerful. While playing under the covers of her bed, Sarah (MĂ©lusine 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 (FrĂ©dĂ©ric 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.

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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 MĂ©lusine 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.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

WORLD WAR 2 MOVIES: Blogger Buddies Speak…

 
 
All week I have been looking at movies based on World War 2. I’ve already shared reviews and a Phenomenal 5. So I thought it would be cool to hear the thoughts of some of my movie blogging buddies. There are literally hundreds of World War 2 pictures and so many of them are great movies. But there are also a handful that stand out as true classics as you will see by the picks below. I asked some of my movie-loving friends to share their favorite World War 2 movie with a brief explanation of why they love it so. I got some great choices and great defenses and I appreciate everyone who chimed in.
 
 
From my buddy Mark over at Marked Movies:
 
“THE THIN RED LINE”
 

“The brutality of war is ethereally and philosophically handled by Terrence Malick. Beautifully shot with an endless cast of familiar faces. War, captured as a meditation and a surprisingly poetic baptism that was based on the novel by James Jones.”

Adam from one of my favs3 Guys 1 Movieagreed:

“THE THIN RED LINE”

Without a doubt my favorite WW2 film of all time is Terrance Malick’s The Thin Red Line. This film was released in 1998 and was overshadowed by another small WW2 film also released that year, Saving Private Ryan. While both films are deserving of great praise, for me the Thin Red Line is a far superior film.

I would describe this film as, a thinking man’s war film. Malick presents us with a war movie from the perspective of an Emersonian philosopher. He also allows us a look inside the heads of several of the main characters, so you can see their thoughts and motivations for their actions.

This is a beautifully shot film, with the Eden like beauty of the tropical islands juxtaposed with the brutal horror of war. If you are looking for a war film that will leave you with more questions than answers, about the nature of man and his place in the world, this might be a film you would enjoy.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the amazing performances in this film by Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson and John Cusack to name a few. It’s a star-studded film with lots powerful performances and small cameo appearances. If you get a chance to check out The Thin Red Line I urge you to give it a watch, after all, it’s my favorite WW2 film.

Pete from the always funI Love That Film” :

“SAVING PRIVATE RYAN”

“Saving Private Ryan” feels more like an experience than a film. Never has a battle scene been more immersive than the opening assault on Omaha Beach. The rest of the film pales in comparison but still delivers some heart breaking characters and perfect cinematography.

However it is the opening thirty minutes that grabs the viewer; putting them in the terrified faces of puking, trembling soldiers before showing them being ripped apart and torn to shreds by enemy gunfire. The handheld point-of-view style camera puts us right there on the beach and changed war films forever. It is a scene you can never forget; a terrifying experience.

Overall, it may not have a complex narrative or be overly ponderous and thoughtful about the life of a soldier, but it does leave viewers with a brutal sense of the horror and the heroics of World War 2.”

Sharing the same view is my friend Kristin from the wonderfulAll Eyes on Screen“:

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN

Well, I’m going to be clichĂ©, or boring, or predictable, and say that my favorite WWII film is Saving Private Ryan. Partly because I haven’t seen a ton of war films, but the reason I primarily chose it is that I love the film. The story is moving, and there isn’t a hint of realism–the film is rooted in realistic combat, dialogue, and action. Tom Hanks leads a strong cast in a film that as many have said–and many more will say–was cheated at the Oscars. I did watch Shakespeare in Love in order to see what was so good about it that it was able to beat out Saving Private Ryan, and in my humble opinion, Shakespeare in Love didn’t come close.”

Marc fromLove Your Moviesadded cool twist:

“THE READER

With a different slant on a WWII film, The Reader tells the story of a woman and former prison guard for the Nazi party. An illiterate woman who was just trying to serve her country and make a living is later put on trial for crimes against humanity along with the other women guards she worked with. They soon conspire to have her take the fall for them all and with her ailment she is unable to refute the accusations.

Having had an unusual relationship with a young high school student whom she lost touch with over the years, he soon discovers her again when she is on trial and he is a young law student. After he is grown he begins to search her out in prison and helps her unknowingly learn how to read and write. Knowing she was innocent of the certain charges and that she is genuinely a good person he can’t lose touch with her.
 
With career changing performances from Kate Winslet and Ralph Finnes, it is an emotional powerhouse of a film that shows a side of one time Nazi’s that hasn’t been shown before. Quite a few soldiers and others involved were just trying to make a living and thought they were doing the right thing for their country as do most servants of their countries. While it’s not considered a traditional WWII film it is still a necessary story none the less.”
 
Great choices and great comments.