Does Hollywood have Holocaust fatigue? It’s been said that there’s a notion in the film industry that there are simply too many movies about the destruction of Europe’s Jewish community and that people are liable to stop caring. Gilles Paquet-Brenner, director of “Sarah’s Key,” doesn’t understand this mentality one bit. Yet while watching his new film one can’t shake the impression that even if he doesn’t ascribe to the idea himself, he strongly believes that this fatigue does exist in his audience and needs to be overcome.
“Sarah’s Key” goes out of its way to bring the emotional significance of the Holocaust into the 21st Century. The result is a narrative that seems to lack confidence in itself, driving its point home over and over again and thereby counteracting any poignant moments it may have created in its opening sequences. Yet it does raise an important question. How much do we need writers and filmmakers to hold our hand in order for us to relate to this increasingly distant tragedy?
Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is an American expatriate, a journalist married to a French architect. Her new assignment, close to her heart, is a feature on the 1942 round-up of Jews in the Vélodrome d’Hiver. That July the French police arrested over 13,000 people and closed them inside the stadium in horrendous conditions for five days, before sending them to internment and later extermination camps. There was no official apology on the part of the French government until 1995, and the event remains a touchstone for national guilt and shadowy memories of the Occupation.
Tatiana de Rosnay, who wrote the novel, screenwriter Serge Jouncour and Paquet-Brenner have set about articulating this event and the larger significance of the Holocaust to a 21st Century public. Julia is a marvelous protagonist for this endeavor, equipped with the dogged journalistic determination and a distance from her subject as an American in Paris. The film then builds a personal connection to the tragedy as we find out alongside Julia that her husband’s grandparents acquired their apartment in August of 1942, a month after its prior tenants had been sent to the Vel’ d’Hiv.
The evicted Starzynski family had two children, Michel and the eponymous Sarah. We see their plight in the form of historical flashbacks that interlock with Julia’s journalistic progress. It works to great effect, granting a contemporary audience the freedom to interact with both a modern hero and a historical tragedy. We see Sarah struggle to flee the internment camp and then watch Julia work out those details seventy years later, an intimate conversation between eras. We reach the height of this tempered drama when Julia confronts her husband’s family and Sarah finally succeeds in escaping back to Paris. These moments are wrought with trepidation and the emotional suspense hits home.
Unfortunately, that climax is about halfway through the film. Everything after it tumbles down the rabbit hole of turgidly “important” melodrama. “Sarah’s Key” desperately keeps trying to convince us that the Holocaust is still relevant today, as if it had not already effectively done so. Sarah’s story comes to include adoptive French farmers and their strapping young sons, a boat to America, a family in Brooklyn, a terrible car accident and a whole range of other twists and turns. The film practically shrieks, throwing tragedy and emotional manipulation at the audience like Gallagher smashing a watermelon on stage.
As if that weren’t enough, the present day story of Julia and her family becomes a blatant metaphor for what a connection to the story of the Holocaust is supposed to do to a person. Pregnancy, marital stress, family drama, secrets, and ominous French pouting all descend upon poor Julia as she soldiers on in her quest for truth. The moody malady of “thinking about the Holocaust” infects the whole cast, including those our protagonist meets as she gives the truth to those whose lives were touched by Sarah. At one point even Aidan Quinn shows up, of all people, to turn in the blandest and least nuanced performance in the film. Yet in a way he’s a blessing, giving extraordinary clarity to the already blunt problems plaguing this ham-handed historical soap.
How much aid do we need from a work of contemporary narrative to help us relate to the Holocaust? If “Sarah’s Key” accomplishes anything at all, it proves to us that there is definitely an upper limit on that conundrum. As the first half shows, along with many other more artful films on the subject, a simple juxtaposition of contemporary life with the terrors of the Second World War is sufficient. Audiences are generally quite capable of empathy, even when not being told obviously and directly to feel it. If that doesn’t happen, the remoteness of the historical event is often not quite so worthy of blame as the filmmaking itself.
“Sarah’s Key” opens Friday in limited release.
Recommended if you like: “The Reader”; “Freedom Writers”; “Sophie’s Choice”