Sarah's Key

Past imperfect: Nothing like using a history-altering genocide for a blue-blood’s personal self-actualization

Jul 29, 2011 at 12:31 pm

In his review of Bruce Jay Friedman’s Three Balconies, reviewer Charles Taylor recounts a story about a friend's uncle who would exclaim, “First the Holocaust, now this,” whenever he was beset by a minor inconvenience.

Taken the right way, one sees where this profane yet self-mocking statement would amuse. Taken the wrong way, you get a film like Sarah’s Key.

I haven’t read Tatiana De Rosnay’s international best-seller, but if it’s anything like French writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s screen adaptation, it hammers home the idea that the Holocaust has become just another historically trivial experience by which navel-gazing boomers can achieve self-actualization. Nothing says art-house Oscar-bait like an artfully cinematic yet blatantly sentimental voyage into the shameful actions of those who sent Jews to suffer and die in the camps.

Cutting between the 1942 past and the present, Sarah’s Key reminds us of France’s disgraceful collusion with the Nazis during the occupation, while sticking our noses in the heart-rending tale of a little girl who locks her brother in a closet in order to save him from being rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Haunted by her promise that she’d return for him, we experience Sarah’s deep pain, suffering and guilt in tastefully composed flashbacks. Twinned to this tragic tale of woe is the story of Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas), a journalist writing about France’s complicity in the deportation of Parisian Jews, who starts to look into the history of her in-law’s family flat. Can you say contrivance in French? Amid domestic upheavals with her husband, Julia tracks down Sarah’s descendent, taking her to well-appointed hotels and apartments in New York and Tuscany. Appropriately, Scott Thomas’ wardrobe is always stylishly understated, underlining the seriousness of her endeavor.

Not quite as mawkish and manipulative as the equally shallow The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Paquet-Brenner’s film has no meaningful message to impart. While Sarah’s Key features some undeniably moving and upsetting moments, Paquet-Brenner not only fails to do justice to his Holocaust subject matter, he ends up trivializing things. Much is made of Julia’s quest to uncover the past at any cost, but to what effect? With no greater claim than Julia’s own self-actualization, Sarah’s Key becomes a betrayer to the intent “never forget.” Worse, it actually sanitizes the atrocities of history by artfully averting its camera, saving us from the real-life wages of war. In Paquet-Brenner’s hands, the Holocaust is little more than excuse for Scott Thomas’ privileged gentile to leave her marriage and have the baby she always wanted. How did one of the greatest acts of genocide become the cathartic equivalent of a self-help book?


Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456).