The line of morality between those who suffered during the Holocaust and those who turned a blind eye is a blurry mess. Sarah’s Key examines the deeply hidden scars and secrets of a family that moved into an apartment that was once owned by Jews who were arrested and sent off to die. This 2010 French film, an adaptation of a 2006 novel, uses fiction to examine such fragile issues.
In 1942, the French police pound on the door to the Starzynski residence, and the young Sarah (Melusine Mayance) locks her younger brother, Michel, in the closet to prevent him from being captured and sent with the rest of the family to Nazi camps. Sarah bravely escapes the camp and attempts to return to her home to let her brother out of the closet. In present day, Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband inherit his grandparent’s apartment which they moved into not long after the Starzynkis were arrested in 1942. Julia begins to consider the correlation between when her husband’s family, the Tezacs, moving into the apartment and events of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, all the while, she wrestles with a conundrum of her own.
Sarah’s Key explores the guilt of those who indirectly benefited from the displacement of the Jews in France. Julia’s interest in the correlation between her husband’s family moving into the apartment not long after the Starzinskis were arrested starts out as a mere curiosity. This curiosity slowly unveils itself to become a rather intricate storyline filled with heartbreak and life-long trauma. The contrasting time periods, German occupation in France in 1942 and present day France & America, does not place the massive changes in culture and political climates into focus. Only once does Julia question the morality of the events, and she does so to her much younger, self-absorbed co-workers.
While Kristin Scott Thomas would be the obvious choice for marketing to push upon the critics and viewers as the film’s cornerstone talent, it is Melusine Mayance who portrays the young Sarah as the film’s breakout performance. She never overacts and when her character’s most traumatic moment occurs, she pulls it off with aplomb. This young talent may in fact be the only true exceptional aspect of the film.
Seeing a light-hearted film about a deeply controversial subject like this being welcomed so easy is disturbing. While Sarah’s Key is mostly receiving positive critical acclaim, France has banned films that truly show the country’s two-faced history with modern, mechanized warfare such as Paths of Glory and Port of Shadows (both banned in France for lengthy periods of time). On the other hand, the film really does not have nearly as much to offer when compared to the Kubrick and Carné classics. Despite a few goosebump-raising points, mostly containing Mayance’s fantastic acting, Sarah’s Key is an easy pass, and mostly forgettable. The film certainly tells the story decently, but never goes beyond the typical cinematic devices to do so. In other words, it is the most basic form of cinematic story-telling and never gives the spectators a chance to think for themselves, and it truly feels as if the real chunk of meaning is lost in the translation between during the adaptation.