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Review: Sarah’s Key (2011)

Sarah’s Key (2011)

Directed by: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

Premise: A journalist (Kristin Scott Thomas) working on a feature story about the arrest and internment of French Jews in 1942 discovers that her family’s history is linked to the event.

What Works: There are two distinct challenges for Holocaust films. The first is to find something new to say about the event. After so many films on the topic, including a number of distinguished pictures like Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, and The Reader, it is easy for films to retread ideas, scenarios, and images that have been seen before. Second, filmmakers have to take care not to exploit the event. There is always a risk of doing that in efforts to curry favor with the Hollywood awards circuit or by succumbing to melodrama. Either one does a disservice to the memory of the Holocaust and degrades its memory by trivializing it. Fortunately, Sarah’s Key manages to avoid those pitfalls by finding a compelling approach to the subject and telling its story as earnestly as possible. One of the major innovations of Sarah’s Key is to link the past with the present, showing how the actions of a previous generation echo through time. The narrative of Sarah’s Key alternates between the investigation by the journalist in the present and the fate of the Jewish family in the past. The film shifts between the two narratives very well, choosing effective moments to transition between them and balancing one with the other both for time and for dramatic weight. Cast as the journalist, Kristin Scott Thomas does a great job. Her character is intelligent but also possesses a great deal of compassion and as her research unveils deeper and potentially darker connections between the privileges of her life and the suffering of others, Thomas incorporates that knowledge into her character. This is a fascinating portrayal of guilt and emerging social consciousness. The character’s guilt becomes so overwhelming that it ends up damaging her relationship with her family and that is a powerful dramatization of the cost of a moral consciousness. The film does not just suggest that Thomas’ character is the only person with a sense of right and wrong. In fact, the other characters voice very effectively a credible kind of apathy; these were events that happened long ago and for the most part were completed before they were adults. By intercutting these moments with the very visceral story of the Jewish family’s suffering, the picture makes for a complex portrayal of our relationship with our history and how we deal with it. 

What Doesn’t: There are a few flaws to Sarah’s Key, mostly in the ending. The film begins to lose its way in the last twenty minutes, especially as it resolves the narrative of the Holocaust survivor. The story tries to loop the narrative and link the past with the present and that isn’t entirely successful. The story of the survivor comes to a stupid and unmotivated end. Thomas’ character has already had her major revelation so the film doesn’t have anywhere to go. It’s a flawed ending to what is otherwise a very good film.

DVD extras: Featurette.

Bottom Line: Sarah’s Key is a thoughtful story on memory and guilt.  It applies those ideas effectively to the Holocaust and provides a new way of thinking about not only this event but other atrocities in our history. 

Episode: #373 (January 29, 2012)