Sarah’s Key opens in 1942, with a young girl hiding her little brother in a concealed closet to protect him from French authorities rounding up Jewish citizens in their Paris neighborhood. Sarah locks Michel in, with a child-like belief that he’ll be safe as long as nobody finds him. She eventually escapes from a concentration camp and makes her way back to their home, still expectant and hopeful about finding her brother alive.
*SPOILER ALERT* We, of course, realize that there’s no way Michel could have survived, and the tragedy of the film lies in the collision between Sarah’s hope and the horrific reality. The film heightens the tragedy through strategic restraint; we don’t see the little boy’s remains, only Sarah’s hysterical reaction. If the film had actually showed us Michel’s body, it would have shut down our imagination, allowing us to put the gruesome image in a box and shut it away. Instead, the film leaves it to our imagination, forcing us to actively visualize the horrific scene. Our active participation makes it impossible for us to neatly compartmentalize the image, so that we keep creating and re-creating the image in our minds for the remainder of the film. This echoes Sarah’s own experience, as the horror and guilt constantly invade and disrupt the rest of her life.
The film’s narrative device also disrupts our voyeuristic expectations for the movie: we’re watching a Holocaust movie, so we’re primed for images that simultaneously horrify us and affirm our humanity because we’re horrified. Sarah’s Key robs us of that easy catharsis by making us accomplices in creating the horror ourselves, in our own minds. This complicity reinforces the film’s notion that we can’t just take the easy way out and blame the Holocaust on the evil Nazis; it asks us to recognize the complicity of everyday, ordinary people, and by extension, of ourselves in similar atrocities occurring around the world today.