It’s tempting to look at old pictures and imagine the history and stories of the people in them. It’s a way to reach into the past. It’s a way to invoke nostalgia. It’s a way to uncover secrets. It’s become a growing trend amongst Holocaust scholars to move away from the almost unfathomable statistics and instead focus on the faces…the pictures…the singular stories…the individuals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Manhattan’s equally magnificent and somber Museum of Jewish Heritage, where an entire wing is dedicated to the display of thousands of family photographs that give the horrors of war a back story and a face.
At a crucial moment in the new French film, Sarah’s Key, our privileged protagonist comes across the photographs of two small children during the course of an investigation. Up until that point, she was merely crafting a story – but now there were faces to that story. It was real. One can’t help but think this notion weighed heavily on the mind of novelist Tatiana De Rosnay as she penned her shrewd Holocaust tale. Sarah’s Key is part of the complimentary literary/film movement to this Holocaust scholarship where faces replace stats. Like Sophie’s Choice, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Reader, Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film is an adaptation of a novel thick with moral complexities where the audience is asked not “Why did this happen?” but instead “What would you have done?” In these elaborate historical fictions inspired by decades of staring at old photographs, we are asked to step into the shoes of those who did anything to survive and those whose lives were threatened leading to complicit acts that made them explicit accomplices or blindly apathetic to the crimes against humanity.
POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD – READ WITH CAUTION!!!!!
In modern-day Paris, an accomplished American journalist named Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas – who at this point in here career has become the Continental Meryl Streep – always very good and always with the accents) is trying to balance her work and home life. She’s finally been given the go-ahead to do a feature story on the notorious 1942 Vel’ D’Hiv Roundup — where the French corralled the Parisian Jewish population into a cycling stadium until the Nazis came to liquidate them to camps outside of the country — while her French husband has begun remodeling his grand-parents’ old apartment so that they might eventually live there in opulent style. Early on, Julia’s young coworkers remark flippantly about the lack of photographs and documentation around Vel’ D’Hiv because they always thought the Nazi’s were such meticulous record keepers. Julia reminds them it wasn’t the Nazis, but the French who sent their own Jews to their death at Nazi hands…and perhaps the French, already feeling the shame of their complicit actions or lack of humane response, didn’t keep any records because they wanted to forget it before it was even finished. Even that stadium was long ago knocked down as if the worst that ever happened there was a bicycle crash.
Eventually Julia’s work and home lives intersect as her investigation into the past uncovers that the apartment her husband is remodeling was once home to a Jewish family that may have been part of the round-up.
The film moves back and forth between Julia’s tale and the story of a little girl named Sarah caught in the round-up in 1942. In the film’s opening sequence, the girl makes a snap decision and locks her little brother Michel in the closest (of that very same apartment being remodeled presently) when the police come knocking on their door. She tells him to be quiet and makes him promise he will wait for her safe return. It’s the only way she could think of protecting him. As the gravity of her situation increases and the horrors take shape, we are soon thrown into the tropes of a classic Holocaust survival tale where little Sarah is driven only by the desire to hold onto the key to the closet at any cost and get back home. At one point, before a successful escape, a woman advises Sarah to look out only for herself, but Sarah is too innocent to know what the woman means and longs only to run home and unlock that door where her brother will be waiting. Sarah is unflappable in her belief that Michel will still be there waiting (no matter how much time has passed) because she made him promise he would.
The film’s casual flipping back between past and present creates a jarring juxtaposition of narratives. Julia’s research and developing personal crisis around marital conflict and home redesign are the stuff of bourgeois guilt – 1st world problems. She eventually learns she’s pregnant, a situation she sees with hope as the last opportunity to have another child while her husband sees it as an assault on his vanity. “I don’t want to be an old father,” he tells her. It’s this kind of self-absorption only the privileged know, and the debate over whether to abort is treated like a common decision to be made within their modern family unit along with what’s for dinner, though for Julia it weighs as heavy as the uncovering truth about Sarah – and it’s breaking news about Sarah that precipitates a snap decision in the waiting room of a clinic.
Sarah did escape, and she was eventually harbored by a loving couple in the French countryside. She convinces them to take her back to Paris to her family’s apartment. Wisely disguising Sarah as their grandson, the couple gives in to Sarah’s insistence. At the old Parisian tenement, a new family has moved in already, seizing the opportunity of vacancies in a run-down neighborhood now free of Jews that generations later will be gentrified. The film’s most powerful moment comes when Sarah unlocks that door – and we see a closet-eye-view of the look on her face as she screams – and the looks on the faces of the others who see the same thing she sees. It’s a moment of great restraint by the director, and it ties into De Rosnay’s central conceit: We can not know the true horrors by wallowing in the grim imagery of the actual horror. Instead we can know it best by the looks on the faces of those who stared it down.
As with many book to film adaptations, there’s a sense of some pieces left out, and it’s easy to imagine another filmmaker employing a more epic feel. But Paquet-Brenner refuses to wallow in maudlin excess, and it’s through the restraint he displays in scenes like the one described above and the blase way in which the film meanders back and forth in time where he tugs at the raw nerves. We often wonder how in a civilized society something like the Holocaust could’ve happened, but the film makes it clear we are not so far removed from it. The stains are still there, and no amount of time can gloss it over. The slippery slope can easily be slid down again if we are not vigilant.
Some of the acting also deserves special mention. Melusine Mayance delivers an unforgettable performance as the young Sarah, and she brings to life the character’s fierce tenacity and determination. She’s a little girl who survives by her wits and is driven by a promise only to be brought to her knees in despair when the reality of her earlier choice hits her in the face. As the adult Sarah, the beautiful Charlotte Poutrel is given not a single line of dialogue yet is able to transmit through her eyes and body language the aching sorrow she feels. There’s a scene early on during the round-up where Sarah, sick with fever, attentively watches an old man tell everyone about the poison he keeps in his ring. “No one but me will decide when I die,” he tells them. Sarah takes it to heart, and later, as an adult who has fled to America, she realizes she has but one choice left to make after all her loved ones…after her entire community…after 6 million Jews…were denied a choice. Riddled by guilt over the many years, Sarah takes her own life.
Meanwhile, Julia uncovers the family secret, writes her story, and meets up with Sarah’s son (Aidan Quinn), who was previously unaware of his mother’s Jewish heritage and tragic childhood. There are ethical quandaries in digging up the past, and there’s a modicum of perversion in our desire to unearth it…in our sense of wonderment when hearing about the horrible statistics…in our need to apply stories to the faces. Yet it’s what makes us human. We need to know. We need to remember. And we need to put everything in perspective.
Julia makes her choice, too. It’s a choice that is a privilege that many throughout history and even today do not have. She keeps the baby and leaves her husband. In De Rosnay’s fiction, she sees Julia’s telling of Sarah’s story as a bit of female empowerment. It’s a little girl that Julia has, and she names her Sarah. In some small way De Rosnay imagines a piece of Sarah living on in the daughter of a stranger. But Sarah lived on, in her own tragic way, through her own free will. I think it would’ve been more poetic to have given Julia a boy…that she could’ve named Michel. For is Michel not symbolic of both the horrible secret France wanted to lock away forever and the promise one innocent child made to another?
De Rosnay is so lucky to live in a world where she can make that authorial choice.
Written by David H. Schleicher