Having survived the horrors of the Holocaust, the Jews of Europe were left with another serious problem: survivor's guilt. The Nazis apparently faced few moral conundrums in exterminating the Jews; the Jews, however, suffered the mental anguish for the choices they made that kept them alive.
So it is with "Sarah's Key" (opening in limited release Friday, July 22), a wrenching film (by director Gilles Pacquet-Brenner from a novel by Tatiana de Rosnay) told on two levels about one woman's desperate story. Even as it once more indicts the French for their complicity in the extermination of the Jews ("The Sorrow and the Pity," anyone?), it examines the reverberations of that era that continue today.
At the center of the story is Julia (Kristen Scott Thomas), a journalist examining the events surrounding one particular event in World War II Paris: the Vel d'Hiv roundup in 1942, in which the Jews were rounded up (by the French police at the behest of the Nazis), held captive in a stadium and eventually shipped to the death camps. As it turns out, her husband's family has lived in an apartment that belonged to one such family since 1942 -- and her husband is about to move her and their daughter into it, once it's been refurbished.
In flashback to 1942, we see the family that lived there on the day of the big roundup: the Starzynskis, who are herded out of the apartment and taken to the stadium. But as the French police are forcing them to leave, the family's young daughter, Sarah, hides her younger brother, Michel, in a hidden closet in the apartment and tells him not to come out, locking the door behind her.
Very quickly, it becomes apparent to her and her parents that she's made a mistake; they won't be allowed back to rescue him. As the days in the stadium drag on, Sarah's frantic need to get back to her brother grows. Days turn into weeks -- and the family is taken away by train to Auschwitz. But Sarah is determined to go back and rescue her brother.
As she uncovers Sarah's story, Julia becomes obsessed with discovering what became of Sarah and her family. At the same time, Julia grows increasingly uneasy with her new apartment -- and similarly unhappy with her husband (Frederic Pierrot), whose business keeps him away for long stretches. The discovery that she is pregnant only adds to her confusion.
Thomas is a marvel of understatement in this film, as a woman who discovers truths about her husband's family that they'd rather not face -- just as the French took literally decades to own up to their part in the Holocaust under the Vichy government. She has the keen intelligence of a reporter and the aching soul of a mother, who comes to empathize with Sarah's harrowing situation.
Melusine Mayance is almost as good as the young Sarah, a girl whose determination burns hungrily to keep her alive and moving forward. She has strong support from Arben Bajraktaraj and Natasha Mashkevich as her parents, and Niels Arestrup as the French farmer who eventually rescues Sarah from the Nazis. Aidan Quinn pops up at the end, movingly, as a man suddenly confronted with the legacy of Sarah's decision.
"Sarah's Key" unpeels itself slowly and delicately, but finds moments of overwhelming feeling and sadness. It is restrained moviemaking that packs real power.
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