Sarah’s Key Dir. Gilles Paquet-Brenner

[The Weinstein Company; 2011]

Styles: WWII/holocaust
Others: Walled In, Citizen Kane, The Pianist

The total protection desired by most Holocaust films is rarely earned. More often than not, they’re released within a cordon of yellow Do Not Criticize tape, due to their simplistic, if faultless, message: that the Holocaust is one of those great historical horrors that should never be forgiven. There are only a handful of Holocaust films so in tune to the complexities of evil that they warrant a pass for being less than sublime films. Shoah and Night and Fog (both documentaries) are so detailed and insightful they transcend any flaws you might find. But Schindler’s List, The Pianist, and the new Sarah’s Key are first and foremost movies, concerned with plots and character and action. Any commentary about the Holocaust comes in second.

Still, the plot here is pretty good. Julia (Kristen Scott Thomas), a modern-day journalist at a second-tier news magazine, decides to dig deep into a previously untold chapter in WWII history: the rounding up of French Jews by their own countrymen during the Nazi occupation. The investigation takes her all over Paris, and eventually around the world, but it leads ultimately back to her own Paris apartment, where a Jewish family lived until the summer of 1942, when they were herded onto a train and eventually exterminated.

Although this may be enough for her magazine, it doesn’t turn out to be the whole of what happened. The daughter of the family, the titular Sarah, fought hard to escape certain death among the collaborationist French police and made her way back to the apartment, only to make a grisly discovery. In the same rooms, 70 years later, Julia uncovers the details of Sarah’s life.

The first half of Sarah’s Key jumps back and forth between the modern-day and the WWII-era stories, and the dichotomy feels like it has purpose. Julia’s acquisition of the apartment — which would have been luxury-level in 1942 and is at least that in 2009 — has to do with a secret in her own family that links it to Sarah’s (refrain, please, from drawing the obvious conclusion). Eventually, though, Julia’s investigation leads her far enough that Sarah’s story concludes, leaving nothing but Scott Thomas’ impressive acting and what feel like loose ends being tied up.

Sarah’s Key is a refined, restrained, and sincere bit of cinema. But while it features a gripping parallel between two stories, the film loses its grip the second it drops the more interesting one.

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