Films about the holocaust are always grim, but the French production Sarah’s Key adds a couple of twists that increase the stress.
The story begins in Paris in the summer of 1942 when the collaborationist Vichy government of France launches a round up of Jewish families. And here is the first cruel twist. It’s not German troops breaking down doors, it is the Parisian police force, ever polite in its brutality. The second twist is more harrowing. Hearing the crashing on the front door, 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) stuffs her younger brother into a secret closet (camouflaged as part of the bedroom wall) and locks the door. Sarah and her parents are herded with thousands of other Jews into the Vélodrome d’Hiver, an indoor cycling arena, and left there without food, water or toilets. Here, Sarah’s overarching struggle begins. She must rescue her brother.
From here on, Sarah’s story is intercut with episodes from the present day when French-American investigative journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her architect husband start to renovate the apartment once occupied by the Starzynski family. Learning of the sad history of the “Vél d’Hiv”, Julia starts digging into the apartment’s history and tracing the fates of Sarah and her family.
The first two thirds of the film focus on Sarah’s struggle. Separated from her parents, she escapes from an internment camp and manages to get back to Paris. As we follow her, we also watch as Julia discovers that, while both the adult Starzynskis died during the war, there is no record of what happened to Sarah and her brother.
And here is the dramatic oddity of Sarah’s Key. The culmination of Sarah’s quest occurs at about the 75-minute mark of this 111-minute film. The 30-minute coda is necessary to tie up loose ends such as the fate of Julia’s troubled marriage and the joys and disappointments of her search for Sarah. But the tension that carries the first two acts is lost.
Despite that loss, Sarah’s Key packs an emotional wallop that will stay with you after you leave the theatre.
So its weak reception in the United States (it grossed just over $100,000 on just five screens when it opened there) is dispiriting. Perhaps the U.S. fear of subtitles (another fear for that timid nation) is to blame: a good two-thirds of the film is in French with English subtitles. In fact, I suspect that writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner could have made the entire film in French, and that making Julia bilingual was his attempt to lure an American audience.