As horribly atrocious as Joseph Stalin was, he was right about one thing when he said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” If I tell you that, in 1942, eleven-thousand Jewish children were rounded up in France and sent to death camps, are you moved to tears? Not likely. But if I show you the tragic story of one of them, you probably will be. The new French film, “Sarah’s Key,” which is currently in theatres, tells you one very heart-wrenching example.
Based on the book by Tatiana de Rosnay, this film tells the story of one ten-year-old girl named Sarah (Mélusine Mayance). When the French authorities, who are collaborating with the Nazis, arrest her family, she attempts to save her younger brother by hiding him in a secret closet. She carries the closet key with her as she attempts to escape her captors and return to rescue her brother. Along the way, she endures horrible traumas.
First her family is taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a stadium where thousands and thousands of Jews were imprisoned for several days without any provisions or toilet facilities. (A modern commentator describes it as New Orleans’ Superdome during Katrina, only a million times worse.)
Then they are deported to the camps where first Sarah is separated from her father, then from her mother, then gets sick. She witnesses death. The only help she receives is from a French guard who experiences a brief moment of compassion and a local farmer and his wife who take pity on her and try to help her return to her brother.
It really is a powerful, moving, and emotional story. The scenes of the camp, especially those where the children are torn from their parents, are heart-wrenching. And Mélusine Mayance, who plays the ten-year-old Sarah, gives an amazing performance for a child-actor.
Unfortunately, this is not really what this film is about. This is only one-third of the movie and it is told in a series of flashbacks during the first half of the film. The movie really concerns a French-American woman named Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) who is a journalist investigating Sarah’s story.
The connection between them is rather thin. Julia has married a Frenchman whose family once lived in the same apartment that Sarah’s family lived in.
Sixty-seven years have gone by. Anyone who had anything to do with the war is dead; those who were innocent children at the time are now grandparents. So what’s the point?
I suppose the filmmaker is trying to tell us that the decisions and actions of those who were involved in the Holocaust have long-reaching repercussions, down through the generations. It’s not ancient history; family secrets can still haunt us.
Point taken, I suppose. But frankly, offsetting Julia’s story with Sarah’s makes it pale by comparison. Julia has her own problems—an unexpected pregnancy is causing tension in her marriage. That’s a difficult thing to deal with, I’m sure, but compared to the problems Sarah had to face, it seems pretty trivial.
The movie’s fault is not that it tells a bad or unimportant story, but rather in its focus. The heart-pounding, exciting, life-threatening situations told in the flashbacks give way to a journalist calmly putting together pieces of a historical puzzle from the relative calm of the contemporary world. It’s a bit anti-climactic. If the center of the film were on Sarah rather than Julia, it would have been far more powerful, I believe.
A few reviewers have compared this movie to another French film, “Un Secret,” which came out in 2007. It certainly deals with similar themes: a generation after the war, a child of Holocaust survivors discovers his parents’ past. But that movie was a bore, didn’t really touch on atrocities, and failed to tell anything new or shocking. “Sarah’s Key” is far better.
And yet it can’t hold a candle to classic Holocaust films like “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist.” Neither can it really touch the recent, more subtle, films like “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” or “The Reader.”
Of course we do need to keep making films about the Holocaust, lest we never forget, but they really should keep saying something important and something new. There are six million stories about the Holocaust. That’s an overwhelming statistic. Just tell us one, so we can feel the tragedy.