As historians, cultural critics, and Jews worldwide debate the present-day legacy of the Holocaust (is it the defining moment of the Hebraic people? A lesson in non-intervention to be learned from? A useful smokescreen for questionable Israeli foreign policy?), there’s a far more depressing possibility that they might have all missed. The Shoah’s most lasting usage may in fact be quite different: to serve as material for an endless spate of middlebrow art-house films designed to milk cheap sentiment from historical tragedy.
Joining such recent entries of dubious propriety as A Secret, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and The Reader is Sarah’s Key, though Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film is less concerned with the Holocaust per se than it is with the question of historical memory and the process of its recovery. Middlebrow it is to the core, however: ultra-clear digital photography alternating with by-the-numbers shaky cam for moments of narrative turbulence, eye-rolling touches of preciosity, and, even when dramatizing the most degrading situations, an insistence, above all, on tastefulness.
Cutting between past and present, the film tells the twinned stories of preteen Jew Sarah (Méusine Mayance) fleeing the Nazis in 1942 France and present-day American-born French reporter Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), who, in researching a little-known WWII incident, discovers her husband’s family’s potential complicity in the deportation of Sarah’s family. Not to worry, though, as we don’t have to wait long to learn that her in-laws’ parents acted as admirably as possible under the circumstances, even if they ended up inheriting the apartment seized from the Jewish girl’s family. Although we get a few glimpses of wartime horror, always neatly positioned at the edge of the screen or obscured through tumultuous handheld camerawork, the film aims to move us not by graphic detail, but by following its heroine on a sentimental journey through someone else’s past, which, of course, becomes a journey of self-actualization.
As its narrative focuses increasingly on Julia’s story and the toll her investigations take on her family life, the film digs into less and less fruitful territory. Emphasizing Sarah and Julia’s cross-decade identification—via, among other means, rhyming shots of the women sitting in their rain-besotted cars—and sidestepping the possibility, hinted at by others, but never endorsed by the film, that Julia’s project is a form of madness, Sarah’s Key becomes a musing (“meditation” would be too generous) on the importance of uncovering the past that fails to honestly contemplate why such an act is significant. Beyond some claptrap about “the memory of who we were, the hope of what we can become” and a (very brief) attempt to extend the lessons of civilian responsibility in the face of historical tragedy to encompass Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s little in Paquet-Brenner’s film to suggest that the Holocaust exists for any other purpose than for one woman’s personal fulfillment. That this fulfillment finds its ultimate expression in her decision to forgo an abortion in favor of middle-aged motherhood, and that the film puts this debate on the same plane as genocide, should serve as fair warning about the filmmakers’ priorities and their willingness, like many a contemporary, to reduce the Holocaust to the level of a mere narrative catalyst.