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. Continue reading