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Sarah’s Key (2011)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Is the film worth your time?

Sarah’s Key relates a Jewish girl’s experience during a terrible incident of French complicity in the Holocaust, which is indeed a powerful story in itself, yet the true strength of the film (and the novel on which it is based) is in its intertwining of a current day family story and investigative plot with the French incident. Though the two stories are quite different, they embody several parallel issues and questions ranging from our responsibility for decisions under pressure and our degree of concern for the truth to what we are willing to risk for the value of a human life. These parallels are lightly played and, to the filmmakers’ good credit, they are never explicitly called out in the film.

Most any film touching on the Holocaust will give rise to questions of complicity in devaluing human life, which Sarah’s Key does. Many confront us with personal questions about what we would risk or do or sacrifice to affirm or protect a human life, and Sarah’s Key does this, too. Some might wonder if it would thus be simply yet-another-Holocaust-film. It is not. Aside from the fact that the Holocaust holds a countless number of stories that ought to be told (both factual and fictional), the film’s once-removed perspective, wherein the Holocaust is in some sense a secondary plot, provides in its parallel exploration an occasion to reflect on how these issues apply to our daily lives and relationships. Some will think the connections between the two stories strains credulity; I say that ignores how strange life can be. As Twain said, “The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to be credible.” I find that you get more out of it if you just go with it.

The filmcraft in Sarah’s Key is usually very strong, particularly its pacing, cadence, and choices on how to interleave the two stories. The film is restrained in portraying the darkness through in which it must tread, but it does not shy from giving force to the darkness. In the leading role, Kristen Scott Thomas lives strongly through simultaneously pain and angst from multiple directions, showing well a compassionate drivenness to make known a truth that, though terrible, nonetheless makes us richer as we embrace it. Through skilled timing on what is revealed, the film constructs some emotional punches that planted for me images of remembrance — not horrific images, but rather icons that I hope will serve to keep alive a strength of passion for doing the right thing. The film is definitely worth the time.

In July 1942, French police rounded up thousands of Jews and deported them to Nazi concentration camps (this is the central fact upon which the book/film builds its fictional story). The Starzynski family is among those rounded up, but not before 11-year old Sarah, thinking the police are arresting only males, hides her younger brother Michel by locking him in a hidden closet. But she and her mother are also taken, and when she realizes that the police have no intention of letting the family return to their home, she becomes frantic to escape, run home, and free Michel. Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond, a journalist pursuing an assignment on the 1942 Vél’ d’Hiv’ incident, discovers that her family’s history is tied to the Starzynski family. When a curious misalignment of facts raises the possibility that Sarah may still be alive, Julia is driven deeper into her investigation, which inevitably draws out her own family issues. Running time: 111 min.

Sarah’s Key is thematically intense, but not graphic. It has relatively minor onscreen violence, most notably in a person falling to their death (shown falling only through the air) and another being struck with the butt of a rifle. These scenes are minor compared to the emotional magnitude of what is going on around them. There is a small bit of language.

  • Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
  • Screenplay: Serge Joncour and Gilles Paquet-Brenner, based on novel by Tatiana De Rosnay
  • Leads: Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frédéric Pierrot, Michel Duchaussoy, Dominique Frot
  • Cinematography: Pascal Ridao
  • Music: Max Richter

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