One of the better entries in the now long list of opening-night films in the Santa Barbara International Film Festival annals, Sarah’s Key gave a full Arlington Theatre plenty to ponder back in January. An intriguing, if ultimately over-manipulative, chronology-hopping tale of a modern-day Parisian journalist tracing one tragic Holocaust tale, adapted from the French novel, the film is a reality-based ghost story on multiple levels.
Kirsten Scott Thomas summons up her calm depth as an actress in the role of a journalist happening upon a tangled, fogged-over Holocaust saga. The story winds back to Jews rounded up in Vichy France, young Sarah’s key to a closet in which her younger brother has been locked, and a plot involving life-changing survival tactics. Implicit in the poignant and broader storyline are themes of stolen innocence and childhood and truths hidden in the effort to set aside traumatizing pasts. In the larger scheme of the film’s serpentine, investigative plot, stories feed off of stories, illuminating and obfuscating as they go. Alas, the film’s grip and storytelling power loosens in its final third.
Holocaust-related cinema has had a checkered history, in terms of bringing to the screen this most horrific, elephant-in-the-room subject of 20th-century history and experience. Of course, it is an important, haunting chapter of human history that demands to be told (partly as a way of not forgetting), but the onus in the telling—or even grappling with the enormity of the topic—often seems to overwhelm the storyteller’s efforts. It may be left to documentary means to plumb the pernicious truths of the story, from the epic proportions of Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity to the anguished poetry of Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog.
In the end, Sarah’s Key, like Schindler’s List, is weirdly uneven, by turns emotionally powerful and maddeningly maudlin, cheapening its potential impact. Still, the ghosts linger, and the dark, unfathomable legacy of evil echoes, in the theater and in our collective memory.