As directed by Steven Oritt and written by David Himmelstein (screenwriter of many acclaimed historical dramas, including “Soul of the Game”) the movie excels at putting the audience in the position of its 13-year old heroine (Zuzanna Surowy), who’s lost and alone in hostile terrain, making things up as she goes, and doing whatever is necessary to live one more day. The story begins with Sara and her elder brother parting ways after he tells her that she has a better chance of getting through the war because he’s more identifiably Jewish than she is. His insight is only partially borne out: from the moment that Sara gets work as a nanny on a farm in the Ukraine (which is also under German control) barely a scene passes without somebody either casting doubt on her story or looking at her in a way that makes us think she’s being suspected of lying.
Sara tells the farmer, Pavlo (Eryk Lubos), and his wife, Nadya (Michalina Olszanska), that she’s fleeing a bad domestic situation—that her mother died, her father remarried with a woman who hates her and had a new baby with her. Although Pavlo accepts this story, Nadya doesn’t buy a word of it. For much of the rest of the film, she stares daggers through the heroine no matter what’s transpiring.
Drawing on the real Sara’s story, the movie contrives situations where Sara could be found out unless she manifests instincts or generates knowledge that will permit her to “pass” (such as being able to make the sign of the cross, some she learned from her Christian friends). So deft is the film’s mastery of simple subjective filmmaking techniques that when Sara enters a small-town church, it’s as if we’re following a mouse into a barn filled with cats. Sometimes the movie turns the thumbscrews on the audience by letting us know that an uncomfortable moment is coming long before it happens, as when Sara tells a woman during a trip to the local village that she hails from a particular city, and the woman says she can’t wait to see her again next week so that she can connect her with somebody who’s known her since she was a little girl.
The film also excels at showing how small-minded and thuggish occupying armies tend to be. The Nazis soldiers that cross paths with Sara and her employers and their two young boys are bullies in uniforms, craven and vicious and often borderline incompetent except when it comes to brutalizing unarmed people. The Russian partisans who show up midway through the film demanding meat from the family farm are only marginally better: it seems clear from how eagerly they beat up Pavlo and grope Nadya and mock the boys for crying that the political righteousness they cite as justification for their actions is merely a cover for their thuggish nature. If there wasn’t a war going on, they’d probably be bandits robbing travelers on the road.