Mom and I saw Sarah’s Key a couple of week’s ago at our normal art cinema of choice, then this weekend went to the West End to see Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness. They were showing Sarah’s Key too, and selling both the original novel and copies of Aleichem’s work were on sale in the lobby. My mom bought the former.
For once, the fictional movie was more emotionally painful than the documentary, though they both dealt with the atrocities committed upon Jews; Sarah’s Key deals with the Holocaust while Sholem Aleichem deals with the Pogroms, which weren’t the only misery in Aleichem’s life either. This is even though Aleichem dealt more directly with the violence; in Sarah’s Key the Holocaust and the deaths all happen offscreen, with Sarah’s own suicide only a partial exception, though we also see the reactions to her brother’s corpse being found, while Sholem Aleichem showed multiple photographs of piles of corpses. Part of this could be attributed to the scale of horrificness, but most of it in fact lies in the approach the two films take. Sholem Aleichem tries to be uplifting, emphasizing the successes Aleichem had as a writer, which isn’t inappropriate, considering the film is as much about his works as it is about him; one of the best sequences has only three photographs and two voices reading out loud passages from his epistolary novel Menahem-Mendl, giving us a taste of the work. By the time it ends by dealing with Fiddler on the Roof, through which his character of Tevye has achieved modern fame, the audience has learned enough to look at the musical with a more knowledgeable eye, knowing it derives from more than one of his works and somewhat changes his message, which is a sign of a good documentary.
If Sholem Aleichem is arguably two stories, one about a man and one about his works, then Sarah’s Key is outright two, one about the girl who tries to rescue her brother and escapes the Holocaust, the other about Kirsten Scott Thomas in modern-day Paris researching her story. But the second story gets short treatment by the script, Scott Thomas’ marital difficulties come off as an excuse to move her investigation plot along and aren’t really fleshed out themselves; the only story that comes to life is the first one. And that’s nothing but heartbreaking, even with the horrors kept offscreen, because the more it goes on, the more we desperately want Sarah to make it, and then we even think she’s done so, only to discover at the end that no, not only did she not make it, but in fact she never had a chance at making it at all; the emotional damage was simply too great. The movie tries to find what consolation it can in the final scene with her son and Scott Thomas’ child named for her, but by then it’s cold comfort.
Both movies are currently playing in the States, though Sholem Aleichem’s probably harder to find, and worth seeing if you can.