Sarah's Key Review
Although a fictional story, an adaptation of the 2006 novel ‘Elle s’appelait Sarah’ by Tatiana De Rosnay, Sarah’s Key is firmly based on a real-life incident, and the reason for telling it – and perhaps the necessity of fictionalising it – is explained by the film’s journalist, Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) at the start of the film. If someone doesn’t tell a story, and find a way of telling it so that it has meaning to a modern audience, then it will be forgotten. There are thousands of stories to be told of the people who were involved in the Vél’ d’Hiv roundup in Paris in July 1942, but there are few people left alive now to testify to one of the most shameful incidents in French history when over 13,000 Jewish, men women and children were rounded-up and interned in an open-air velodrome before being sent on to Nazi death camps.
Those who were sent to Auschwitz are evidently no longer around to testify to the events of July 1942, but there’s another reason why this remains a story that hasn’t been told before. Working on an article for a magazine, one of Julia Jormond’s young colleagues is surprised to find that there is so little documentation of the incident, since the Nazis were meticulous about their record-keeping in relation to the Holocaust. The truth, he is shocked to discover, is that it wasn’t the occupying German troops who arranged for the round-up and shipping of the country’s Jewish population to the concentration camps, but rather the French police on the orders of the French government. Gilles Pacquet-Brenner’s film works on this level, alternating between the past and the present as a means to show as far as possible the reality of the situation for those caught-up in the round-up, showing the enormity of the event historically, as well as its importance and its relevance for a young modern audience for whom this event would otherwise impossible to relate to and almost incomprehensible. It did happen, and modern-day atrocities show that it can all too easily happen again if we remain blind to the implications of Sarah’s story.
It’s through the fictional story of a young girl, Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance), that the implications of a greater reality are fully conveyed in Sarah’s Key. When the police unexpectedly and without prior warning turn up at their Paris apartment in the poor Marais quarter of the city, Sarah does what she thinks is best for her younger brother, and locks him into a compartment in the wall of their bedroom, promising that she will come back for him as soon as she can. The likelihood of that happening diminishes quickly to the despair of Sarah and her mother and father, as they spend days with thousands of other families in the filthy, unhygienic and horrifying conditions in the Vélodrome d’Hiver and learn of their fate to be shipped out to camps in Poland and Germany. Separated from her parents at the staging camp, Sarah knows the situation is desperate, and with another young girl she has met, she is determined to escape and recover her brother.
Regardless of the fact that the story of Sarah is fictional, and that it seems somewhat improbable that the young girl would be so quick-thinking as to hide her brother in a closet when no-one else really knew what was happening, in essence it captures the full implications of what the round-up entailed, how it separated families and reduced them to absolute powerlessness and desperation, as well as fearful for their eventual fate. The melodramatic nature of this fictional plot device is fully justified since it could hardly be any more harrowing and dramatic than the reality. Director Gilles Pacquet-Brenner handles this aspect of the film exceptionally well, assisted by a fine performance by the young Mélusine Mayance (cast previously in François Ozon’s Ricky), taking the experience down to the personal level of what one family have to deal with, while implying that similar horrors are being played-out by thousands of others. The treatment of the historical aspect of the story is involving, shocking and deeply moving and it really forces the viewer to really consider how events must have played-out.
It has to be said however that the present-day parts of the film, and the search to discover what happened to Sarah that takes up most of the second half of the film, is far less compelling. The contrivance of the apartment where Sarah once lived belonging to the French Tezac family that American Julia Jarmond has married into isn’t necessarily a problem since there would have been many homes belonging to Jewish people reallocated to Parisians in need of accommodation during the war. It provides Jarmond with the motivation she needs to delve deeper into the unknown and untold story of one particular victim of the Vél’ d’Hiv roundup, and her own family issues and the question of her pregnancy have relevance for the emotional level on which she connects with Sarah’s story, but really, in comparison to what Sarah and her family undergo, Julia’s problems are rather tedious and take up relatively too much of the screentime.
The present-day framing device of the story is important however, since it shows how it takes a journalist a considerable amount of research and investigation to uncover this shameful incident which has been buried and is not spoken about, and it also shows why it is important that younger people today know about it. If one doesn’t question how it could ever have been allowed to happen, how can we be sure that it won’t ever happen again? If putting this into a present-day context makes Sarah’s Key easier for an audience to relate to – since one can imagine that a full-length story consisting of Sarah’s story alone would be almost unendurable – then it is certainly justified. Even if the film never regains the full impact of its powerful opening depicting the Vél’ d’Hiv roundup and the drive of Sarah to reach her brother, and even if the connection between the fate of the Jews in France during the Nazi occupation and the present-day is handled rather better in another recent French film (One Day You’ll Understand (Plus tard tu comprendras) by Amos Gitai) Sarah’s Key contributes effectively to a growing and important catalogue of revelations about the collaboration of the French authorities with the Nazi’s during WWII, while at the same time being a powerful human drama in its own right.