Cinema has never shied away from recording the Holocaust; but in the last decade or so the general tone has slowly shifted into something more interesting. Straightforward portraits of good versus evil have gradually morphed into morally complex explorations of guilt and complicity. The distance between our generation and theirs has now widened to the point where it’s an examination of events, and not merely an apology for them, that interests us.
Sarah’s Key, by switching in between the past and the present, neatly demonstrates this question of how much responsibility, and how much guilt, should be borne by the generation following these terrible events.
Kristin Scott Thomas plays Julia, an investigative journalist working in modern-day Paris who is tasked with writing a piece on the 1942 Vel d’Hiv: the mass roundup, in Nazi-occupied Paris, of thousands of Jews who were eventually taken to concentration camps. At the same time, the strains on her marriage are temporarily eased by the gift, from her father-in-law, of the flat that he grew up in.
Over the course of her research, Julia discovers a terrible connection between these two events: the apartment was made vacant to her husband’s family when the Jewish family occupying it were removed and sent to meet a terrible fate. Her discovery that a daughter, Sarah, may still be alive prompts Julia into a mission to return the flat to its rightful owner.
The action intercuts neatly between Sarah and Julia, offering parallel portrayals of females utterly confounded by the world around them. Sarah struggles to find a place in her new home; and Julia, an American, feels alienated from her French husband and from Paris itself (although the dual nationality may just be an excuse for Scott Thomas to show off her French skills).
The central performance is a very convincing one, and it fits very well into this generally engaging piece of cinema. The action, which follows Julia’s attempt to track down Sarah, is well-measured as it moves from Paris to Brooklyn to Florence. But as much as we can see Julia’s single-minded determination to do the correct thing, it doesn’t take long before her self-absorbed approach to righting the Nazi’s wrongs begins to grate. Julia is willing to sacrifice everything in her pursuit of moral piety – and to what real end? To assuage her own feelings of complicity. Her unease surrounding the apartment, and the events which took place in it, are clearly expressed and cannot elicit any criticism on their own. But the degree to which she so readily takes on the burden of her father-in-law’s guilt makes this less of a heroic, Nazi-fighting adventure and more of a study of one woman’s self-reflection.
The film delivers some rather beautiful shots across its various locations: certainly, this is a very good-looking film which, when it needs to, packs a strong visual punch. The pacing, too, is just right in this busy story: there are plenty of turns, but they are neither predictable nor outlandish. (And the director deserves commendation for resisting the temptation to indulge in a silly ending.)
Anyone watching this film is likely to be moved by it, and – in that slightly weird Holocaust-movie way – enjoy it. It’s an appealing and well-made film with plenty of good features; but you can’t help thinking that it’s got the potential in there, somewhere, to be much more than that.