Sarah’s Key courts the unthinkable—so unthinkable that the bestselling French author of the novel upon which the film is based wrote the original work in English.
This is a Holocaust tale. But the Third Reich sits this one out on the sidelines while the B team—Vichy French authorities and police who zealously carried out Nazi Germany’s racist policies—takes the field.
The film opens with two small children playing happily in bed one morning at home. There is an authoritative rap at the door of the apartment. Paris police order the children’s mother to pack essentials for her family for ‘three days’ and report downstairs.
A quick-thinking little girl tells the plainclothesman that her father and brother are ‘in the country.’ Then she tells her little brother to get in a cupboard, making him promise to stay there and be quiet until she comes back for him. He promises; she locks him in.
In the street, mother and daughter meet father, all of whom police force to go, along with the rest of the neighbors wearing yellow stars, to a former bicycle-racing track on the Seine, not far from the Eiffel Tower. This is the notorious Rafle, or ‘Roundup,’ of French Jews at the Vel’ d’Hiv’ [the former Vélodrome d’Hiver, also known as the Palais des Sports] by Paris police on July 16-17, 1942.
This two day roundup involved about 13,000 Jews—about one sixth of the total of 76,000 deported from France to the Reich’s camps in Germany and Eastern Europe. Roughly 8,000 people were held for several days at the Vel’d’Hiv’ before they were moved to a transit camp south of the city at Beaune-le-Rolande, eventually to Auschwitz. The rest were sent to the Nazi-run holding camp at Drancy, a suburb northeast of Paris.
The quick-thinking little girl is Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance). The most essential item she has brought from the apartment is the key to the cupboard in which she has stowed her brother Michel—Sarah’s key. So far, she has saved her brother’s life. Now she—or someone—must return to get Michel out of the cupboard.
Fast forward 65 years. Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist married to a French architect and living in Paris, is working on a feature story about the ‘Roundup’ for her American magazine. It is territory she knows well.
Her husband, Bertrand Tézac (Frédéric Pierrot), is absorbed in a large project with a Chinese client. He also is renovating his family’s longtime apartment in the newly trendy Marais neighborhood in the heart of Paris, one of the oldest parts of the city, for himself, Julia and their daughter Zoë (Katrina Hin).
In relatively short order, Jarmond realizes that Bertrand’s grandparents first moved into the apartment weeks after the roundup. With her fluent French and a little local legwork, she discovers that the family who lived in the apartment before the Tézacs moved in had been Polish Jews named Starzinski.
She finds out that Riwka (Natasha Mashkevich) and Władysław Starzinski (Arben Bajraktaraj) were arrested during the Rafle, taken to the Vel’ d’Hiv’, then to the transit camp at Beaune-le-Rolande, and afterward to Auschwitz—but not their children.
These are the bare bones of a sweeping, epic narrative which involves the Tézac and Starzinski families, as well as the salt-of-the-earth Dufaures (Jules, Niels Arestrup, and Geneviève, Dominique Frot) and an American family named Rainsferd (Richard, George Birt, and William, Aidan Quinn).
Without revealing any more plot points or story details, it must suffice to say that director Gilles Paquet-Brenner wraps up his story leaving no loose ends. The tale is cast broad but accessible, with a clean finish. The picture is filled with lovely details and many small moments which Paquet-Brenner was lucky to catch and astute to recognize for what they are—and to keep.
One thing that makes the movie hold together well is that it is not yet another pious Holocaust narrative with all the usual suspects. It is a complex tableau comprised of individuals making the variety of idiosyncratic choices real people make, within the context of one of history’s big events.
One is reminded of May Sarton’s ‘one must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.’
Scott Thomas, herself an Englishwoman married to a Frenchman and living in Paris, is acting a life close to the one she leads. But hers is a tough role. Julia Jarmond is that odd breed of American expat, definitely not ‘one of us,’ though perhaps less ‘one of them.’ In order to chase down all the story’s details, she plays an American bull in a boutique of exceptionally brittle old French china. In this, she succeeds well.
The real grace note in this movie is Mélusine Mayance, the ten-year-old girl who plays the child Sarah. This child actress looks younger than ten, but she has the acting chops, the poise, rhythm and timing of actors several times her age. Sarah’s actions are informed by what she observes in the adults around her—surely no less than those of Mayance herself surrounded by adult professionals.
As for the easy outrage that works such as this story can trigger, an old woman Jarmond interviews for her story may say it best.
In the present day, this woman (Jacqueline Noelle) tells Jarmond of the noise and the horrible stench she remembered coming from the Vel d’Hiv’ across the street from her house in the Rue Nélation, with the 8,000 people corralled there. Jarmond asked her if anyone in the neighborhood tried to figure out what was going on there at the time.
The woman replied: ‘To figure it out? That’s easy enough to say now. We were fed so many stories about the Jews. What would one have done anyway? Call the police?’