The Holocaust. Just the word itself conjures up images of unadulterated despair, of suffering so profound and so systematic it makes our stomachs turn and our eyes tear even to this day. Its stories have been examined and re-examined, told and retold countless times through history books, novels, documentaries, museums and films of all kinds. We can't figure it out, for all our inquiries: How could this happen? How could we let it?
For those who didn't live it, the Nazis' efforts to exterminate the Jewish population in World War II can seem like a nightmare -- appalling, terrifying, but far removed from our cozy lives and hazy with passed time. . "Sarah's Key," directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, tells a compelling, emotionally devastating tale based on a all-but-forgotten event of that terrible time.
"Sarah's Key" focuses on a present-day American journalist, Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas), who lives in France with her family and is assigned a story about the 1942 Vel d'Hiv roundup, in which the French police, backed by the Nazis, arrested more than 13,000 Jews and detained them in the Veledrome d'Hiver, an indoor stadium in Paris, and then deported them to concentration camps. As she works on her article, Julia discovers a personal connection to one of the victims, a young Jewish girl named Sarah (Melusine Mayance).
The film jumps between Sarah's story, as she tries to escape the camp and return home to rescue her brother, whom she locked in a secret closet to save from deportation, and Julia's, as she delves further into investigating Sarah and the Vel d'Hiv and dealing with her personal life. The modern-day half of the plot lags about an hour in, after the climax of Sarah's portion of the movie. It would be interesting enough on its own, but Julia's personal struggles pale in comparison to Sarah's extraordinary journey.
Thomas is a knockout in this role -- she expresses everything from compassion to horror without going over-the-top, which is really key to a movie so brimming with emotional content. Also impressive is Niels Arestrup, who plays the gruff farmer who takes Sarah in.
But the real star here is Mayance, a blond, wide-eyed wisp of a girl playing a character simply made to break your heart. Whether she's getting firehoses turned on her by French policemen, hiding in an attic to avoid capture or just trying to understand the circumstances around her, Mayance plays Sarah with a genuine innocence and bewilderment, those wide, scared eyes and undeterrable determination staying with you long after the credits roll.
Yes, we've seen this story before. This film has all the classic, tear-wrenching Holocaust movie moments -- families being torn from their homes and crammed into transport trucks, children being ripped from their mothers' arms, filth and sickness in practically every shot. But those scenes still hit hard, no matter how many times you've seen them. And for good reason. This isn't some melodramatic sop a writer brewed up -- it happened.
Though it lags in parts, "Sarah's Key" shows us that events that happened years before affect us all, whether we know it or not. It's a testament to one of the darkest periods in human history -- one we'd like to forget, but one we instinctively know we must keep remembering.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Kristin Scott Thomas, Melusine Mayance, Niels Astrup, Frederic Pierrot
DIRECTOR: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for thematic material including disturbing situations involving the Holocaust.
THE LOWDOWN: A present-day journalist investigates a Holocaust event and discovers a personal connection to a little girl who suffered through it.