Jul 26, 2011
The Holocaust Film Studios, aka The Weinstein Company, bring us yet another movie on the topic. This one, I must say in some disagreement with the ornery review from the NY Times, is not as grotesquely offensive as Life Is Beautiful or The Boy in The Striped Pajamas (just the trailer offended me). It is at times powerful, at times corny. But it is effective.
Sarah's Key is a Holocaust movie with a twist. In this case it's the French government, not the Nazis, who are the epic villains. The focus is on the deportation to concentration camps of 76,000 French Jews by the French government in enthusiastic solidarity with the Nazis.
This is a twist that works. At this point, the sight of sadistic but stylish Nazis barking in German at all times has become a cliché. But sadistic French flics? The paragons of enlightened reason rounding up their own citoyens with less pity than they afford cattle and sending them to their deaths? This is nouveau in a country revered by its legacy of democratic ideals, liberté fraternité egalité, etc.
This French movie, directed by Gilles Pacquet-Brenner, is based on a bestselling novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, and it has the contrivances of such. I bet it's the Weinsteins candidate as the French entry for the foreign film Oscar. It's not good enough to be Oscar material, but stranger things have happened (i.e Life Is Beautiful). A clown in a concentration camp: give me a break.
Kristin Scott Thomas plays Julia Jarmond, an American journalist who is married to a French architect and lives in Paris. Scott Thomas is one of the three actresses who currently speak both English and French without an accent. They could have gotten Julie Delpy, but maybe Scott Thomas is more of a marquee name. Charlotte Rampling is the third, but she is long in the tooth for the part. Scott Thomas doesn't even try to imitate an American accent, but since she's such a classy actress, one doesn't care. Julia works for some implausible invented magazine run by expats, which is the weakest and less believable part of the movie. The clumsy, expository scenes consist of three bad actors and Scott Thomas gamely trying to rescue them from total failure. The present is interwoven with scenes of the Starzynski family, emigres from Eastern Europe, who are taken from their apartment in the Marais, now chic as hell, but in those days a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, like the ancient Lower East Side.
In the Summer of 1942, over 12,000 Parisian Jews were violently rounded up by the French police and put in a velodrome to swelter, starve and fear for five days (today the site houses the Ministry of the Interior), in an action that Julia describes to her young, ignorant cohorts, as ten thousand times worse that the Superdome after Katrina. The 10 year-old Sarah Starzynski, the impressive Melusine Mayance, a tiny dynamo with great presence, hides her little brother in a closet as she and her parents are rounded up by the French police. Then she has to live with the consciousness of her decision: did she save him or did she doom him? The story of this family, even if fictionalized, is very similar to thousands of stories that happened in reality. The scenes of deportation are strong and emotionally harrowing. Once again, one wonders how this could happen in the modern century, in the supposedly civilized continent, only 70 years ago.
The review in the NYT complains that the weaving back and forth between past and present looks demurely away from the horror, but I was relieved to have been spared the most morbid parts. Gilles-Pacquet is unsparing in the wrenching emotional reality of the characters, which has a stronger effect than a regurgitation of the images of mass dehumanization we all know all too well. The focus on Sarah and her family make the historical reality more traumatic.
Julia investigates the provenance of the apartment her family is moving into at the Marais, which turns out to be the Starzynski's home. Julie has marital problems of her own, and she is furious with her husband's family for what she assumes was their complicity. Her story did not bother me because it is complicated. She is a crusader for the truth but her obsession with the story takes a toll on her personal life. I know this sounds like the biggest cliche, but somehow I bought it. Perhaps it's the dignified, quiet resolve of this actress that makes it believable.
I'm sure there were a lot of nasty people like the wife of the concierge of the building, who was happy to give Jews away and get the keys back. Or like the woman who screams to the Jews that they had it coming. There were also many French citizens who fought the Nazis and actively saved Jews, like the peasant family in the movie, led by the always wonderful Niels Arestrup, who doesn't want trouble but cannot but be moved to help a child in distress.
Still, the ending of Sarah's Key is a bit of a cop out when it turns out that the family she married into was actually on the right side of things. They "didn't know" they were occupying the home of deported Jews, and they felt guilt and shame for many years after that. It would have been more interesting, if bleaker, to confront a family who did know, and looked the other way, or maybe even profited from the Jews' ordeal.
Fact is, after its defeat, Vichy France collaborated with the Nazis, to its everlasting shame. It took the French government until 1995 to recognize this, apologize and make some restitution. Now there are plaques all over Paris pointing to the buildings, kindergartens, schools and businesses that French Jews were expelled from. Of the 76,000 French Jews sent to the Nazi camps, only 2000 survived. However, 250,000 Jews survived in France, by their wits and with the help of some of their fellow countrymen. As opposed to Germany, where there is much hand wringing about the Nazi past, there are not many French movies (considering how prolific their film industry is) that deal with this dark hour.
Still, as Holocaust movies go, even in its maudlin present moments, Sarah's Key struck me as being slightly a cut above the typical Holocaust kitsch. It explores the burden of being Jewish and the burden of complicity, and even if it has a reassuring ending, it is more complex and less trivial than some of the other Holo-corn out there.