The creation of “Holocaust films” as a genre would seem to symbolize the world at large attempting to address and recognize the untold horror, suffering and genocide that occurred during World War II. There’s certainly something of that in the constant stream of movies released post-Schindler’s List that regularly inundate art-house theaters (especially in December), but most of these pictures take us further from the events that actually happened. It’s a topic that’s better left unaddressed than addressed poorly, and unfortunately like nearly all films that have attempted to dramatize the Holocaust, Sarah’s Key not only fails to do justice to the victims, it unintentionally trivializes their lives.
Sarah’s Key is split between 1942 Paris, where Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) and most of her family are taken to concentration camps by French collaborators, and present day Paris where the journalist Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) is investigating what happened to them. The titular key is to a hidden closet where Sarah locked her younger brother to hide him before the rest of the family was taken away, and Sarah is hoping to escape from a concentration camp in order to rescue him. In the first of many melodramatic turns, Julia is moving into the house where he was locked and finds herself wondering whether her grandfather-in-law actually turned in Sarah’s family.
This film’s cross-cutting immediately creates tension between the banal, frequently exasperating present-day sequences and the life-or-death story taking place in the past. Thomas’ character comes across as shrill while her husband and daughter are barely characterized. Mayance on the other hand is unbelievably precocious and suddenly slips out of the picture two-thirds of the way through. The audience is privileged with an omniscient view of her story most of the way through, then suddenly it’s taken away for some rather cheap suspense.
While Sarah’s Key flounders when it comes to basic storytelling, far more frustrating are its manipulative plot twists. It becomes not just a Holocaust movie, but also an abortion movie, and what’s more it’s also about a family splitting up. In every instance characters make unrealistic choices in order to heighten the film’s drama so that the entire film becomes one overwhelming attempt to make you feel depressed. But this isn’t a thoughtful view of abortion or the Holocaust; it’s just an emotional rollercoaster carefully calculated to dredge up negative feelings in place of real depth.
The adjective best fitting Sarah’s Key is “slick,” which is a disgrace considering that its chief topic is incomprehensible suffering. It has a bland, prestige-y look that pretends to be objectively watching characters when in fact it’s part of the film’s overall strategy of strangling its viewer’s thinking with cheap sentiment. Anytime real events might occur, whether it’s in the concentration camps of the past or the abortion clinic of the present, Sarah’s Key sanitizes events and averts its camera. Nothing portrayed in the film is shocking; anytime real drama would take place rather than its amped-up melodrama Sarah’s Keyducks out with an ellipsis rather than showing us something that would upset its fragile, middlebrow sensitivities.