Movie Review: “Sarah’s Key”

Written by Michael McNeely October 25, 2011

By Michael McNeely

Are You Asking the Right Questions?

Language: French (with English subtitles), English

There are a lot of things we don’t like to talk about. As an English/History teacher, and personally, as an admirer of a good story and a seeker of lessons from the past, I appreciated Sarah’s Key for what it was: a glimpse (albeit only a glimpse) into how Jewish people fared in France during WWII. In short, they were treated as if they were sub-human – and before we go blaming Germany, it is important to realize that many French authorities were implicit in carrying out horrendous atrocities to their Jewish citizens. They simply took advantage of the situation to inflict cruelty to their fellow human beings.

Anti-Semitic attitudes did not begin or end in WWII. Thinking we have moved on will only allow the continued perpetration of hatred, ignorance and bigotry in all of its forms: and not just Jewish people need be affected, because, why stop there? I feel that this movie is about the importance and difficulty of asking questions to arrive at truths that are not necessarily attractive or pretty.

Based on the popular and best-selling book of the same name by Tatiana de Rosnay, the story present day, a journalist named Julia Jarmond, who, while researching the deportation of Jews from a traditionally Jewish neighbourhood in Paris, France in 1942, discovers that her new apartment was the home of a family that was torn apart because of the forced relocation – called the Vel d’Hiv Roundup. This alternates very nicely with the story of young Sarah Starzynski, played wonderfully by Mélusine Mayance, who lived in that apartment with her brother, mother, and father.

Special circumstances arise where she is tasked (partly by her own volition, and partly due to events beyond anyone’s control) with taking responsibility for her young brother’s life. She holds the key to his hiding place in the apartment’s cellar, and he has promised to wait for her. The movie does a good job of illustrating the times where we have no choice but to act on impulse, and all we can do then is hope for the best. Sarah is smart and creative and her ideas are often sound and respected by others around her – some of which are adults that can hardly make sense of the chaos happening around them.

Sarah, left, seeks help from a stranger for her newfound and ill friend.

As a journalist, Julia is well-positioned to research the history of the Jewish neighbourhood she is to live in with her husband. However, her husband is not too keen about her sneaking around in his family’s affairs: after discovering what happened in his apartment, his only words to the occasion are something to the effect of, “well, we can’t live here anymore, can we?” This attitude can be contrasted to his grandfather who, as a young boy, witnessed first-hand the tragic events at the apartment, but, with his father and mother, and with his own family, continued to live there – paying a monthly allowance to alleviate guilt and suffering. I can’t really say any more about this without ruining important plot strands – although, it’s not really about the suspense at the end of the day – it’s about who takes responsibility and who tries to forget and who ultimately is left ignorant.

The scenes with Sarah and her family at the converted relocation centre and internment camp are very effective set-pieces: quite visceral and gut-wrenching. The long shot over the long-suffering and endlessly waiting deportees was heart-breaking in its realism and – dare I say, imagination – humans trying to band together against an indeterminate enemy – themselves, only not themselves, monsters, cruel and alien. From the relocation centre and internment camps, many of these Jewish people were sent to the concentration camps in the rest of Europe to suffer a fate that many of us cannot possibly comprehend.

Smell plays an important part in the story: neighbours smell what is happening in the relocation centre (hint: the bathrooms are useless) and later, the apartment has a stench that is attributed (incorrectly) to a dead cat. Yet, people still live and carry on with the stench permeating their everyday existence. Another motif is how much difference the kindness of strangers can make – this should never be doubted. From the soldier who lets Sarah have her key back and who holds some barbed wire for her and her friend, to the elderly couple that ultimately pay in guilt for their initial reluctance – sometimes you just need to reach to someone and come face to face with the truth.

My Rating: 9.5/10

Please share any comments you have about this film or others of the Jewish experience/Holocaust during WWII.

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