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No Happy Endings, Please

by Shawn Stone on August 31, 2011

Sarah's Key
Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner


This involving Holocaust drama is not an exercise in historical instruction. Sarah’s Key sets the overwhelming evil of genocide in a larger context spanning six decades, and builds its heart-wrenching drama around characters who mostly try to do the right thing.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Julia, an American magazine journalist who has married into a life in France. This life is good: She and her husband (Frédéric Pierrot) have a 12-year-old daughter, and are about to take over his parents’ former apartment in a fashionable Paris neighborhood. Julia’s work is rewarding, too: Her current assignment is a largely untold story about a war crime committed by the French occupation government in 1942, when thousands of foreign-born Jews were rounded up by French police and deported to Auschwitz—and she gets 12 full pages to tell it. (In the real world of journalism, this amount of space is as rare as a healthy profit.)

The horrors of this incident are many. The Jews were first locked up for days in an aging sports arena with little food or water and no bathrooms. Beaten, starved and degraded by the French police, they were then bused to a transit camp where families were separated in the cruelest possible way. All this happened (as the film chronicles) with nary a German in sight.

In Sarah’s Key, it happens to a working-class Jewish family made up of tweener Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance), her parents and her younger brother. When the police come to take them away, she locks her brother in a closet and tells him she’ll return to free him; through the terrors that ensue, Sarah holds on to her promise—and the titular closet key—for dear life.

The filmmakers cross-cut between the journalist’s life as she researches the story (and runs into a few jarring personal problems, like finding out that her husband’s family acquired their swell apartment in mid-1942), and the horrific fate of the Jews. The intent is not to equate the two stories, but to show how the journalist becomes obsessed with her work, and how her life becomes entangled with her need to know Sarah’s fate. Julia’s obsession is understandable, even admirable, but not entirely healthy. (That’s one of the hard truths at the heart of it all: Julia does all the right things, and the truth does not set her free.)

Sarah’s Key is rated PG-13, and the filmmakers pull their punches accordingly. This isn’t exactly new in Holocaust fiction, but with sober, unflinching documentaries now widely available, it’s getting harder to justify. The filmmakers instead lean heavily on the drama’s terrible (but not terribly surprising) “big reveal” to convey most of the emotional impact.

The drama unfolds across generations and families, and while Kristin Scott Thomas is never anything but compelling as the reporter, the essential character remains young Sarah. Mayance is big-eyed kid with a serious face and demeanor, and her cunning is the cunning of a child. She’s determined to be the master of her fate.

This makes the filmmakers’ presentation of the adult Sarah, played by Charlotte Poutrel, anticlimactic. Mostly, she’s presented staring unhappily off into space, whether at work or play. Other characters tell us what adult Sarah was up to, how she lived, what she believed, but almost none of this is dramatized.

Whatever the intent, the effect is neutering. The filmmakers don’t judge Sarah for her postwar choices, but they do something even worse: They silence her. And they tie Julia and Sarah’s stories up in a way that does justice to neither.