From Mary Burgan. Leave a comment or email her at [email protected]
Because the methodical murder of six million Jews in Europe in the 1940s is the most recognizable crime against humanity of the 20th century, there is a temptation to use the Holocaust as the galvanizing theme in novels and films.
The two most recent films that use the Holocaust to trigger the action are The Debt, which has been playing on a number of screens in the District, and Sarah’s Key, which has had short runs at only a few venues.
This difference in accessibility at theaters is too bad because Sarah’s Key is a far better Holocaust movie than The Debt.
The Debt is a thriller that relates the actions of a trio of Mossad agents in the past to their fame as national heroes in contemporary Israel. Helen Mirren plays the older version of Rachel Singer, a Mossad operative who was involved with two other agents in bringing a Nazi war criminal to justice when she was a young woman (played by Linda Chastain).
Chastain endows the young Rachel with a kind of sensitivity that risks the whole caper as she becomes involved with the two male agents on their mission to take a Nazi doctor back to Israel for justice. It is true that each member of the team had lost relatives in the concentration camps, but there are still problems in understanding their motivations. The emphasis is on their being hardened by their training. Such problems are compounded by the simplistic actions given to the actors who play them 40 years later.
The senior characters are especially difficult to sympathize with because they seem miscast. For a few moments when they are all together, the viewer has to work to figure out who’s who among the men. And then they seem lacking in much beyond the guilt that takes one of them away and the brazen self-interest of the other.
The always-interesting Mirren plays Rachel, but The Debt has back-loaded her role to the very end of the film. Not only does she not look like the early Rachel (only an unbelievably contrived bad scar link them together), but she has only thriller actions to do. She does go through these with nerve-wracked but steely-eyed intensity, but even Dame Helen cannot rescue the plot of this flawed movie.
Nor can her performance exempt The Debt from the suspicion of Holocaust exploitation. Despite past award nominations for its director and its senior actors, The Debt is just another revenge thriller — one that uses the Holocaust to suggest a serious purpose, when there is little.
Paris in 1942
Sarah’s Key also has some plot problems as it tries to bring the past into the present. It dramatizes the story of a young Jewish girl who escapes the roundup of Jews in Paris in 1942, even as it chronicles the efforts of a journalist to uncover the girl’s fate.
In the process, that journalist, Julia Jarmond, played with quiet conviction by Kristen Scott Thomas, must absorb the increasingly personal meaning of young Sarah Starzynski’s life. She discovers that she is pregnant even as her husband is preparing to live in the very apartment in the Marais that was once occupied by Sarah’s family. The revelation sends her away from France, though, as she notes at the end, discovering the story helps to make the past a part of the present. Her process of understanding provides the moral center of the film.
The depiction of brutalized children in Sarah’s Key shares similarities with scenes in films like Spielberg’s Shindler’s List, but Sarah’s Key is not only interested in arousing pity in its viewers, it also seeks to makes clear that the expulsion of French Jews during the round up (la rafle) of July 1942 was carried out by the French themselves.
Gentile Parisians stepped into apartments that had once housed the outcast Jewish families, and in many cases they maintained a guilty ignorance about what had happened to the Jews. The French government did not admit their country’s role in this crime until 1995.
The Debt grips its audience through a build-up to violent action with some interpersonal romance thrown in, and then a bravura final episode with Helen Mirren as its agent. Sarah’s Key recreates Paris and the French countryside during the Nazi occupation, showing the horrors of families cruelly separated and sent off to die in Auschwitz.
The double stories of past and present in Sarah’s Key and The Debt present problems that neither film completely resolves. Both have strong performances by major actresses that make them both worth watching. And both exploit the Holocaust for dramatic purposes. But such exploitation trivializes the subject in The Debt. Sarah’s Key is a much more thoughtful film.
If you want a more profound cinematic treatment of the effects of the Holocaust, see the recent French film called The Round Up (2010). Or go to the classics like Alain Renais’ Night and Fog (1955), The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Vittorio De Sica (1970), or Louis Malle’s autobiographical Au Revoir les Enfants (1985).