SARAH’S KEYWatch It At Home:  Misses a Difficult Mark
There may be no cinematic minefield more dangerous for filmmakers than the Holocaust.  For films entering that difficult territory, the choices of tone, approach and imagery may not just be called into question, but outright offend audiences, and viewers have very personal standards.  I considered Life Is Beautiful to be almost unwatchably reprehensible, but the movie wasn’t just a worldwide smash hit ($229M), but the winner of major Academy Awards (thanks for that, Harvey Weinstein).  On the other hand, for me Schindler’s List is a genuine masterpiece, but there are more than a few who passionately believe it’s a middlebrow distortion of the horrors it depicts.  Despite the potential for controversy, the subject matter can lead to a surprising amount of success at the boxoffice; besides Life and Schindler, recently The Reader made over $100M worldwide.

And so, SARAH’S KEY has joined the group of Holocaust-driven movies.  Based on the bestselling novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, it’s directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner (whose track record is little known in the US), and adapted for the screen by the director and Serge Joncour.  Like THE READER, it’s structured as a story that flashes back and forth between World War II and the present.  In 1942, the young Sarah (Melusine Mayance) is captured with her family by the Paris police and (in a real life incident) imprisoned at the Vel d’Hiv bicycle stadium on the way to the concentration camps.  Sarah is further haunted by the fact that she “rescued” her young brother by locking him in a closet when the authorities came, and carries the key to that door with her always.  Meanwhile, in the present day, Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist living with her French husband in Paris, discovers in the course of her research on the Val d’Hiv roundup that her husband’s boyhood apartment–where the two of them and their daughter are planning to renovate and move in–may have been Sarah’s original home.
You can see, watching the film, why this parallel structure was employed:  Julia’s presence allows the film to explore the way even now, 40 years after Marcel Ophuls’ epocal The Sorrow and the Pity, the French still resist acknowledging that their own people directly sent Jews to their slaughter.  (Reportedly, the novel has had a similar effect on the nation as Julia’s story does in the film.)  But there’s no way to equate the power of the two storylines, and this has the unfortunate effect of distancing us from Sarah and her ordeal–particularly because Scott Thomas is such an arresting actress that even with a relatively weak plotline, her presence dominates the film. This only becomes worse when the present-day story brings in the topic of abortion, which is dealt with in the most cliched way imaginable (Spoiler Alert:  people who watch mainstream movies and TV could easily believe that abortion clinics don’t actually perform the procedure at all–they just exist so that women can show up there and then change their minds.)
The result in Sarah’s Key is a slick production that tries to balance a tragic story with one that’s ultimately feel-good, and succeeds only in damaging both.  Scott Thomas is excellent as always, not to mention in this case invaluably fluent in both English and French, and Mayance is strong as the young Sarah (although it’s not clear why Sarah had to be such a blond-haired movie star beauty).  In supporting roles, Niels Arestrup (he was the old crime boss in A Prophet) brings emotional weight to his role as a farmer who figures in Sarah’s life, and late in the modern-day story, Aidan Quinn does an enormous amount with just a couple of scenes opposite Scott Thomas.
A question–perhaps an unanswerable one–that’s been raised since Holocaust stories became part of popular culture is whether the infusion of standard drama into such horror, by its very nature, acts as a disservice to the magnitude of the event–makes the ultimate in indigestible history into something easier to swallow.  Opposed to this, of course, is the very real educational function that these stories can provide, and the fact that people simply wouldn’t watch a depiction of the actual Holocaust without some avenue of dramatic escape.  Sarah’s Key tries to tread that line and falls into superficiality and sentimentality; it’s not a bad movie, but it’s an unworthy one.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."