While some of the darkest days of modern history have had light shone on them recently, some details still remain vague. The Holocaust film Sarah’s Key covers a little-known element of French history, all the while offering a very personal story.

In summer 1942, the Nazi occupation of Europe is well underway as the Jewish populace of France is further exposed to the horrors their brethren have already seen. When the Starzynski family is forced to vacate their Paris apartment, 10-year-old Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) keeps her younger brother, Michel (Paul Mercier) hidden from the authorities. Not understanding what’s in store for her family, she believes she’ll be able to return immediately to retrieve him.

More than 60 years after Sarah’s experiences during her captivity, American journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her French husband (Frédéric Pierrot) are the newest owners of the Starzynskis’ apartment. When Julia learns the history of the building, she becomes obsessed with uncovering France’s dark past. More important, however, is her quest to find out what happened to the little girl who only wanted a normal life.

The staunch performance of Scott Thomas is what keeps this comparison of past and present grounded in the latter. Though Julia’s drive to unearth the atrocities of days gone by is fervent, her vulnerabilities are just as notable. Keeping a failing marriage afloat and contemplating a late-in-life pregnancy may seem trivial when contrasted to what others have gone through, but that burden of having an easier life is something society can just never seem to get over today. Young actress Mayance is amazing as the titular character, while she goes through hell ten times over, first in the Vélodrome d’hiver and then the camp at Beaune-la-Rolande. Even once Sarah gets herself free, the awfulness does not stop as she journeys back home on her desperate errand.

With a story teeming in pathos from the onset, audiences can hardly be surprised at the dips and peaks of the emotional roller coaster for which they paid admission. Anyone familiar with the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, and the details surrounding the arrest of thousands of Jews, will likely notice less factual content than 2010’s The Round Up or 1976’s Monsieur Klein compared to Elle s’appelait Sarah, the original title of the film and Tatiana De Rosnay’s novel.

As with any movie or book based on true events, it’s anyone’s guess if the perspective we have today is completely accurate, but that’s part of the point of Julia’s inclusion. It is one thing to express disgust at the events of the Holocaust, but Julia herself makes the case that we probably wouldn’t have had the fortitude to do things differently, if the circumstances were the same. While Schindler’s List and The Diary of Anne Frank show the past with slivers of the present, the line is split right down the middle here. Paying homage to those who suffered is, as always, a worthwhile endeavor, but just as necessary is the need for people to have a way to connect to the past beyond a recreation.

Sarah’s Key achieves what it sets out to do in creating a snapshot of France’s times of turmoil and the reaction it gets these days. The one drawback is the absence of a storyline that really drives home the humanistic feel of such a tale. Then again, if director Gilles Paquet-Brenner were to try too hard, the result might have been all too schmaltzy.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Cincopa WordPress plugin