"all the actors work with elegant restraint."

Sarah's Key

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            It's not often that a story overwhelms all the other elements of a movie. Sarah's Key is one of these. Without first rate essentials, even a compelling story could fall, but director Gilles Paquet-Brenner makes sure that his fine cast and photographers let the story work its power on the audience. All the actors work with elegant restraint - in tribute, it seems, to the story they are telling.
            It is July of 1942 when the dreaded knock comes to the doors of 13,000 Jews. "Bring blankets, food, and I.D.", is the command. But this is not Germany. It is Paris, and the French are arresting their own. Whole families are taken to the Velodrome - a cycling arena near the Eiffel Tower where there is no water, no food, and the bathrooms are locked to avoid escape through the windows. The arena has become a holding pen for transport to concentration camps. This is the Vel'd'Hiv Roundup, and it will end in Auschwitz.
            The scene then shifts abruptly to Paris, 2009 where a pair of married journalists plan to move into an apartment owned by the husband's parents. The wife, Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) senses a connection between her in-laws and the past and wants to explore the history of the apartment. She begins to trace the wartime story of Sarah Strezynski (Melusine Mayance), the daughter in a family that lived there 67 years ago. It is one of the strengths of this film, if a jarring one, that the contemporary scenes are so sharply etched in the details of today while those of the World War II seem thoroughly distant from the world we live in now.
            Stories from the Holocaust by people who weren't there are tricky undertakings. It would be ideal but impossible to say that only actual survivors have credibility. That generation is nearly gone and their stories will continue to flow through the hands of their descendants and historians. Every victim had a story that bears telling, and the telling is the only guarantee against forgetting.
            A theater manager told me that after every showing of this movie, audiences stay in their seats, talking quietly for a long while. They are stunned. Is it because younger generations haven't yet learned what happened? Is it because the Velodrome Roundup was by the French of the French? Or is it because we as citizens have begun to see ever more clearly that the veneer of civility on our own ordered society is paper thin? World War I, the "war to end all wars", didn't. World War II, the war that exposed man's inhumanity through the Holocaust, has receded into history. Vietnam, the "unnecessary war", did nothing to stop unnecessary wars. And so, when we are stunned by Sarah's Key, perhaps the impact is rooted in the awful certainty that it will all happen again and then again until the final war. The evidence of that is all around us.


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