Wrenching story of the Holocaust in France filtered through a contemporary domestic drama
Published: July 27, 2011
Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner
History gets passed down through stories. A recent screening of Sarah’s Key at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., was introduced by Raphael Prober of the museum’s Next Generation Board, who asked any survivors in the auditorium to stand. Of the half-dozen who did, some astonished with their, well, not youth, but the fact that they aren’t ancient. They are the age of grandparents, and the truth of them was as emotional as any image in Sarah’s Key, a film that illuminates horrific actions by the French government during the terror of the Holocaust through an extraordinary story.
Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and based on the 2007 English-language novel by French journalist Tatiana de Rosnay, Sarah’s Key presents a modern-day discovery of one girl’s secret. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Julia, an American journalist living in France now for years with her businessman husband Bertrand Tezac (Frédéric Pierrot) and teenage daughter Zoé (Karina Hin). Just as they begin renovations on his family’s apartment on la Rue de Saintonge, Julia’s desire to work on a story about the notorious Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in 1942 becomes a passion as she learns of terrible truths that the French don’t seem to want to bury so much as move on from.
In 1942, French police raided many French homes, arrested close to 14,000 Jews—4,000 of whom were children—and confined more than half of them in the Vélodrome d’hiver, a sports stadium, for five days. Of the stadium’s 10 bathrooms, five were shut down because they had windows; all other windows were barred; there was one source of water; and any aid, food, or additional water was brought in by the Red Cross, Quakers, and a few doctors and nurses. Many detainees died, many were shot trying to escape, many took their own lives, and those who survived were deported to the internment camps of Beaune-la-Rolande, Drancy, and Pithiviers.
The Starzynski family lived in the Tezac apartment during that time and ended up at the Vélodrome d’hiver: mother, father, and daughter Sarah (Mélusine Mayance), who hid her younger brother in the bedroom cabinet when the police arrived, thinking the family would come back and get him. Julia uncovers Sarah’s story slowly: She finds that the Tezacs began renting the apartment shortly after the raids, she sees a photo of two children with Jewish stars sewn on to their sweaters, and she learns that only three Starzynskis are accounted for at the camps. At the same time, her own family unravels. Her unexpected and unlikely pregnancy is unwanted by Bertrand, her father-in-law Édouard Tezac (Michel Duchaussoy) has something he’s been hiding from his family, and in unpacking the horrors done on one people by another, she finds herself questioning the innateness of who we are as individuals.
The French aren’t demonized, yet there are moments when Julia judges not just those who lived in the past but her young co-workers who are naive enough to “know” exactly what they would have done in the same position, and her in-laws: Her father-in-law’s father had to keep Sarah a secret from his wife and they still try to keep it from her.
The stories of Julia and Sarah translate a history that occurred only 70 years ago via how it affected/affects two women, and they touch on the small choices people make every day and what they add up to, whether good, evil, or cold neutrality. But plot points in Sarah’s Key bring it down from those lofty ideals and closer to conventional filmmaking: Julia’s husband wanting her to abort seems an insensitive (or too easily symbolic) choice when the film’s most heart-wrenching scene is the Nazis separating mothers from their children. And there are flirty moments at the end that just feel wrong in their feel-goodness.
Although this story is set in France, there are thousands of stories that could be told about the victims of the Holocaust through the stories of others. Julia’s journey to discovery is interesting—we certainly care about her—but don’t her struggles pale in comparison to Sarah’s? Do we do enough justice to the past when we need to filter it through our own story or is it an opportunity to give light to darkness?
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