A Tale of Two Secrets-Part Two – Escape Hatches & Errata – locking the escape hatches of Sarah’s Key

Writing the suicide note, older Sarah [© Canal+, Studio37 - 2010]

Writing the suicide note, adult Sarah [Charlotte Poutrel]                      [© Canal+, Studio37 – 2010]

In this installment of my three part series we will continue the discussion of the evolution of the media depiction of the Holocaust via a comparison and contrast of two recent European films: Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s 2010 movie Sarah’s Key, and Nicolas Klotz’s 2007 film Heartbeat Detector by bringing our attention to what I consider to be a number of ‘escape hatches’ and other errors that the plot of Sarah’s Key was written around that dramatically limit its usefulness as a means of bringing its audience to terms with the reality of its subject matter: the July 1942 Vel’ d’Hiver Roundup and the deportation of some 13,000 Jewish men, women, and children from Nazi occupied Paris – by the French police.

Spoiler Warning! [CCA Tim Davies][This is your fair warning, a certain amount of the two movies Sarah’s Key and Heartbeat Detector will be revealed, that you might not want to be revealed if you haven’t watched the movies]

Escape Hatches

The issue that stuck in my mind most forcefully watching Sarah’s Key was that I perceived that the movie was constructed around a number of psychological ‘escape hatches’ that allowed the characters in the movie, and by extension their surrogates in the audience, to evade directly confronting or identifying with the feelings of personal guilt and responsibility for the deportations of Jews – including French Jews – by the French and abstracted that personal guilt to some other French far away and off-screen.  This tended to preserve the national myths about the good and noble French who resisted the Nazis by aiding and hiding their Jewish countrymen, which is not untrue but is only a fragment of the story, and one which people quite naturally would prefer to cling to. Still, the movie pulled a lot of punches and seemed deathly afraid of letting the malefaction of a Frenchman linger on screen unbalanced.
For instance in this scene early on in the movie, as Jews are being off-loaded from buses and forced into the Velodrome d’Hiver, locals living in a block of apartments across the way, [including one who may have been interviewed by Julia in the modern day] watch and comment:
Woman:  They had it coming to them!
Man:  Don't talk nonsense!  After them it will be our turn!
Shades of Martin Niemöller, “First they came…”  It is significant that both interlocutors were written as seeing the Jew as ‘other’, notice the language they both used for the Jews:  “them”.  For these two French this distinction was completely invisible [as apparently it was to the writers] – a point not dealt with in the movie.  In my opinion this is a most disingenuous kind of balancing, here is the ‘wicked’ French who spouts some “nonsense” and there is the ‘good’ French to provide the immediate rebuttal.  This is a dimensional flattening of the reality of the antisemitism alive in France at the time and how deep the problem really was.  Presenting the two currents as somehow equivalent seems very disingenuous.  Paris in 1942 was a metropolis of over 2.5 million, it has a long history of insurrection and barricade in the face of tyranny when it feels sufficiently roused, for 13,000 Jews in two days, nothing happened.
This movie is ostensibly [or should be] about coming to terms with French guilt about the deportations of Jews, French Jews among them, to the death camps of Nazi Germany, but virtually all of the French you encounter in the in the film fall into the roles of the traditional French narratives about the war, those of the noble French who resisted the Germans and aided the Jews when they could, were apathetic in the situation, or are merely fonctionnaires carrying out the policies of higher authorities are guiltless of any real antisemitism.

From the word ‘go’ it [the Holocaust] was not a subject that was particularly appealing to audiences.  Maybe they didn’t want to be reminded of their own antisemitism and racism.  Maybe people don’t go to the movies to feel awful about themselves and what they are and what they do.
~Norma Barzman – writer[8]

You go Norma.
There is also that movie to be made, the one about the righteous among the nations of France, those French who risked their lives to protect Jews, and indeed it already has, Pierre Sauvage’s 1987 documentary Weapons of the Spirit for instance, which details the resistance to the Holocaust of the entire population of the Hugonot commune of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, [coincidentally not far from my grandfathers home town in the department of Haute-Loire] but this wasn’t that movie either.
This unwillingness to really engage the issues [having pulled a lot of punches] was not at all the impression, that I got from viewing Heartbeat Detector, even though both movies operated on a very similar premise: the deep family secret of ancestral Holocaust involvement, an outsider investigating the matter, and how that investigator and the decedents of those individuals involved dealt with the uncovering of what was done in the past.  In that way the two movies are almost identical; however, in Sarah’s Key the Tezac family is ultimately given a complete pass on its ‘guilt’ of having obtained the Starzynski apartment under possibly unethical circumstances [my bold]:
 Julia:  I'm really sorry.  I didn't want it to be this way.
 Edouard:  [of his father] He's a big boy.  He'll cope.  Why are you 
                calling, exactly.   It's late.
 Julia:  About your father.  I wanted you to know he always did 
                 the right thing.
 Edouard:  Thank you Julia.

Uk!  Bleck!  I about threw up over that one.

It seems to me to somehow disingenuous to create a work of literature or cinema that purports to deal with “One of the darkest moments in French history…”, the direct complicity of the French government and indifference of French society to the deportations of their own people by the Nazis, by first setting the story in the midst of a historic event like the Vel d’Hiver Roundups: depicting with great vividness the dehumanizing scenes of chaos within the building; the eventual ripping of children away from mothers & etc. as they are sent off to Auschwitz; and then construct its plot such that the central characters, the non-Jewish ones, are completely let off the hook for any real responsibility for anything of any real significance and instead turn them into the paragons of the righteous French who resisted and “did the right thing”.  The Meme Merchants give no prizes for that kind of behavior.
Wonderful, how touching, the family Tezac is let off the hook, they’ve dodged the bullet, they got their ‘Get Out of Holocaust Guilt Free‘ card, but because the family Tezac is also symbolically the stand-in for every French family with Holocaust, or anti-semetic skeletons in its closet [how ironic can this be?], as well as French society in general, everybody gets to take themselves off the hook.  I hope that was merely an oversight and not the intent of the story.  The effect of turning the Tezac family into an example of the honorable and decent [even if secretive, in denial, and over-protective of granny’s feelings] family is to miss the grand opportunity of the story, if not its entire point, to grab the bull by the horns, namely that the French government and society was deeply complicit in many ways with the deportation of Jews, their own and refugees, to the Nazi death camps in the east.

Dealing with the subject of the Holocaust requires grabbing the bull by the horns, fully knowing that you will get gored by the beast at some level.  Honesty and respect for the millions murdered require that you try.

This points to another real problem with the basic premise of the story in its reluctance to tell how bad it really was, how easily French bureaucracy was co-opted into doing the deed for the Nazis and how willing the French citizenry was to sell-out their own Jews in the face of Nazi coercion, and how some benefited personally from the situation.

…it is never going to be as bad as it was.  You cannot portray it.  But, the dilemma is should you not do it?
~Martin Starger, Producer of Sophie’s Choice [9]

This in my opinion is the movie worth making here, the movie of the helplessness and despair over a kind of guilt that you can never really atone for, never sufficiently apologize for, that remains for you an irreducible mass of Karma – a mountain of regret – even though it may not be personally, or directly yours.  In such a movie the guilt and remorse are brought to the surface, acknowledged and admitted, even if it is too late to really fix anything.

Eventually, this holocaust miasma if left exposed to the sun, the weather, and the generations will erode down to a kind of level, not forgotten, but hopefully no longer toxic, and will help build the soil for a new kind of civilization, one where we no longer do that kind of thing to each other.  One can then take what comfort you can in that you have acted with integrity and even though some parent or grandparent fell short, that not every one acted that way, failed to act when conscience demanded, that there were genuine heroes, great and small, who did act with courage and integrity:  Sophie Scholl, Martin Niemöller, the citizenry of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, and that their courage and  sacrifice did help make the world a better place by resisting Nazism and the human tendency towards the inhumane.

That’s the movie that needs to be made, it’s just a movie no American can make about the Holocaust.  One of the two movies we are examining here one came much closer to that ideal than the other – watch them both and decide for yourself which one.

That it would take an American mini-series [Holocaust] to make people [in Europe] aware of what happened in their own back yards, that their own parents were to some extent responsible for, it’s totally ironic, it’s very amusing really.
~ Robert Berger, producer Holocaust [10]

Merely, as in Sarah’s Key, to present an in-movie televised video clip of French president Jacques Chirac‘s July 1995 admission to and apology for the complicity of the French state and Police in these crimes against humanity does not suffice, while maybe appropriate for the French at the time, a good first step, this was in artistic terms a complete cop-out.  None of the Tezacs wound up having to apologize for anything, none of the French characters had to come to terms with the situation and change anything – thus the “escape hatch”.  Instead everybody got to go home feeling good about themselves for having done nothing [and that “done nothing” cuts two ways].

Actually, I don’t think that the Tezacs were particularly guilty of anything in the first place.  What did they actually do, or not do?  They rented an apartment that had previously been rented [as far as I could tell] by a Jewish family that had been deported, a family that may not actually not French citizens [Starzynski?] but refugees from someplace ost [Poland or Germany??] and they thought France would be safer haven for them than inside the Reich [Ce que l’ironie!] – unpleasant to think about, but not unspeakable. This is a bit different than say, running the local gas-van operation and dumping the thousands of bodies down a mine shaft, or buying a business at fire-sale prices from a family about to be shipped off to Manzanar for the duration [see? I don’t dump only on the French].

This situation was another basic flaw in the plot line that struck out at me as novelistic, rather than realistic, and I don’t mean just striving for the happy ending, it’s a certain Lassie like quality to the plot: young child in danger and can only be rescued by other child because all adults are reduced to ineffectiveness.  The basic plot structure of young Sarah’s mission: escape from Nazi captivity to rescue her little brother from confinement in the Starzinsky’s closet, is essentially not a Holocaust story, it could have been placed in almost any other children’s movie.  The plot is tragic in the literary sense, and a seminal and shattering event for a young heroine, any young heroine, like the character of Buddy Threadgood being struck by a train was for young a Idgie Threadgood in Fried Green Tomatoes.

It is this shortcoming that lead me to feel that Sarah’s Key was plotted in a novelistic way, and as a story really fell short in doing the subject justice by not seeming to know how to get a hold of the Holocaust bull.  In my opinion this shortcoming borders on dishonoring the dead, rather than bringing some new understanding to an audience about what happened and how that relates to us as human beings today.

As historian Neal Gabler said of the critical reaction to the seminal 1978 television mini-series Holocaust [emphasis mine]:

Almost everyone was operating under the assumption that just dealing with the Holocaust was good, that you’re bearing witness, and what could possibly be wrong with bearing witness?  And, he [Eli] Wiesel says, its not just about bearing witness, its how you bear witness;  that any representation really trivializes the event.  That this is something that is beyond any traditional narrative form.  So, what you are getting is this kind of war between narrative on the one hand and history on the other.
~ Neal Gabler, historian [11]

The complaint, as voiced by noted: political activist, professor, and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel [again my emphasis]:

It’s not that it was bad, its that it wasn’t good enough.  It didn’t rise to the dimensions of the horror and the heritage that perished in the Holocaust.
~Eli Wiesel [12]

To “get it right” or close enough to be of genuine service to the issue, is extremely difficult, but I can be done, has been done.


There are several other flaws in Sarah’s Key, that though not strictly relevant to the thesis, that I think are worth mentioning:  too much time spent in the present day;  too little appropriate private remorse as opposed to fear of public shame; too much of a detective story without real detective work; and too much information!  Troves of documentary evidence appear seemingly form nowhere, and upon demand, when one of the early premises is that because this was a French operation [as opposed to the anal-retentive Germans] no records were kept and only a single photo exists of the event.

Another significant issue I have with Sarah’s Key in my view, was to write the only Jewish character of the story to survive the Holocaust be the one to feel the guilt and remorse of having survived so keenly that she eventually suicides in despair over her failure to save the life of her brother and loss of her family – abandoning her husband and her child to her death in the process – seems a bit twisty to me. [and a little unclear, a problem you have when you don’t give a character enough words to speak and instead leave her standing sullenly staring out at the ocean].

Sarah as a character started out the movie as a child of almost indomitable will and courage, that somehow after her brother’s death and loss of her family, she folded in some way seem like a real tragedy.  It seems a real shame that she wasn’t given time on screen to show us how and why.

Both Sarah’s Key and Heartbeat Detector dealt with the issue of suicide – unbearable remorse.  Suicide is a real issue to be dealt with in the reality of the Holocaust and the Holocaust survivor.  I won’t pass judgment on it except to say that if you take the course that Sarah ultimately chooses death over life, then you have to take that with complete seriousness and ditch the whole present day plot with the Tezac family and give Sarah the time she deserves as a character to work that process through, and not leave her mute and voiceless staring sullenly out to sea.  To tell that story completely second hand through the memories of other characters seems somehow wrong – it seems to have the effect of reducing Sarah Starzinski’s life and death to a plot device.

Young Sarah Starzinsky

Young Sarah Starzinsky – disturbingly cute.  [Mélusine Mayance]         [©2010 Canal+, Studio37]

Yet another issue that bothered me was the fact that the character of Sarah Starzynski [Mélusine Mayance young Sarah/Charlotte Poutrel adult Sarah, good French names both] the central Jewish character of the movie was cast as about the most non-Jewish looking person possible:  blonde hair, icy blue eyes, delicate Aryan features.  This really bothered me.  This was at some level, I don’t know what, a deliberate decision on the part of the writer or the director.  This wasn’t wrong necessarily, it could perhaps be justified historically, but it was another thing that I just couldn’t suspend from my disbelief from, from the very first scene of young Sarah playing under the covers to the end to adult Sarah’s eventual demise at the front end of a semi-truck.  It was a bit distracting, like watching Chuck Connors cast as Geronimo. – not necessarily wrong for 1962, but a very strange thing to watch in 2012.  I honestly do not know what the decision process was, but is smacks of somebody thinking the [French?] audience could not identify with an actress who was identifiably Jewish.

Films often have an audience surrogate.  There has to be a character with whom the majority of the audience can identify.  It’s unlikely that character can either be the Jew who has been brutalized and victimized, nor is it going to be the Nazi perpetrator, or the guilty bystander.  We don’t want to identify with the person committing, or watching evil.  That leaves the descent observer who takes part who finally says, ‘I can no longer be indifferent’.
~ Annette Insdorf, film scholar  [13]

The situation is cast in to rather glaring contrast by the casting of Sarah Ber as young Sarah’s companion Rache [who also dies in-movie by the way].  Miss Ber, looks identifiably like a pretty young Jewess, she could easily have been cast as an Anne Frank – or Sarah Starzinski.  There is a certainly a movie to be made about the Jews who survived because they could ‘pass’ as non-Jews [what a terrible irony – and a Holocaust reality] but this was not that movie.

[The Diary of] Anne Frank [1959] is a very interesting manifestation of of both Hollywood and America.  They tried to make Anne Frank more universal and less Jewish so it would be more appealing to an American audience.  The feeling was at the time that you cannot make it to the screen in America if you are that ethnic.
~Michael Berenbaum, holocaust scholar [14]

Rachel [© Canal+, Studio37 - 2010]

Rachel, the real Sarah Starzinski?   [Sarah Ber]                                      [© 2010 Canal+, Studio37]

Is France of 2009 somehow America of 1959?  Makes you wonder, besides, we all know what happened to the Jews who were hidden but could not be kept hidden the whole war…

It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
~Anne Frank  [15]

A bit naive as it turns out.

The reality is you can’t come out of understanding the Holocaust by saying that you believe that people are good at heart. People may be good at heart, but the Holocaust is certainly no manifestation of that.
~Michael Berenbaum, holocaust scholar [16]

This ends Part Two of the series.  The concluding installment will focus on how the dramatic use of horror is essential in any work that wants to deal with the holocaust in an effective and conscionable way.
~ Wygart

End Notes

8,9,10,11,13,15,16]  Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust, Daniel Anker, Ellin Baumel, 2004.
12] NBC News Special Report, “Holocaust: a postscript”,  September 13, 1979.
14] The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank, Otto H. Frank, Mirjam Pressler, and Susan Massotty, Everyman’s Library, Oct 19, 2010.

4 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Secrets-Part Two – Escape Hatches & Errata – locking the escape hatches of Sarah’s Key

      • Globally, I don’t agree with your critical analysis of the movie, which I find severe.

        You would like the movie deals with a subject while it was not realized for : this movie is not a documentary aiming at demonstrating the responsibility of the French in the implementation of the elimination of the Jews. You consider the movie as a sort of anti-demonstration and you build all your critical elements on that.

        The movie was made to tell a specific story, but not especially by hiding the truth or by subtracting the responsibilities (which are well-known and were shown in many other documentaries and movies).

        Also, to evoke the horror, I’m not sure that it’s either necessary to show it during 10 minutes in the introduction of every movie talking about the Shoah.

        Classifying the French people from this time between good and bad French is a cliché, because there was a very great majority of “between-two” people, every one being in charge, in any case, because the responsibility was collective.

        On your critic of the suicide: Within the people who lived these horrors during the war, the cases of suicides were important while these people were starting a better life. Maybe exactly because it is unbearable to realize that we live in a certain comfort when we think of those who died in the mud.

        On the criticism concerning the girl and the young woman who “do not make rather Jewish”. At first, there are Jewish girls who look like them, for example in Poland (there was …). Then, you give the impression yourself to fall in the kind of cliché which, you and I, we could denounce.

        So, I find your criticism rather severe especially regarding to the real object of the movie.

      • Thanks for taking the time to reply. All points taken. I’ll have to think about them in light of what’s changed in my thinking since I originally wrote this piece. Thanks again for your input.

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