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.
[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]
Woman: They had it coming to them! Man: Don't talk nonsense! After them it will be our turn!
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
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.
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 
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 
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 
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 
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.
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 
[The Diary of] Anne Frank  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 
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 
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 
Please, put the name of the artists you show the picture : Charlotte Poutrel, Mélusine Mayance, Sarah Ber.
Denis, from Paris
Terminé. Merci pour la correction.
I would be interested to hear if you had any other thoughts, concerns, or questions about the essay.
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.