Gilles Paquet-Brenner, director of the gripping French film “Sarah’s Key” about France’s infamous roundup of Jews in 1942, told a screening audience at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum that he’s “tired of its being called a Holocaust movie…It’s universal.”
In the film, ten-year-old Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) hides her younger brother in their bedroom closet when French police arrest Jewish families in Paris July 16-17, 1942. Sarah promises to return to free him. Almost 70 years later, Sarah’s story has deep consequences for American journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), when she researches an article about the virtually forgotten Velodrome d’Hiver (“Vel’ d’Hiv”) Roundup.
“The film is about what the past means for our present and future – it’s universal,” Paquet-Brenner said about his movie, which opened today in the DC metro area.
“People of other minorities have come up to me after screenings and told me about all the horrors they’ve experienced,” he explained.
“It’s not just about a Jewish family, it’s about family.”
But a case in point was the director’s own Jewish family, which “lost several members” in the Holocaust. They had moved from Berlin to Paris because “they thought France was safe. There were so many Jews there.” His family went to the France’s free zone, unoccupied by the Germans, “but someone informed on” his grandfather.
Paquet-Brenner’s grandfather died at Majdanek concentration camp in 1943. “My mother lost her father when she was only two, and my grandmother lost the love of her life.”
The director said he’d always wondered why his grandfather had “died in his 30s, a strong man — he would have been sent to forced labor.”
That mystery was solved only after the movie opened in France, and his mother “opened up. She said he had poison with him, and took it.” A similar incident is in the film, whose screenplay Paquet-Brenner co-wrote with Serge Joncour, based on the book by Tatiana de Rosnay.
“Sometimes our own stories are the ones we can never tell. If we don’t, they become something else – forgotten,” the film begins.
The story of the roundup had almost been forgotten by most, until this film and a slightly earlier one, “La Rafle” (“The Roundup”).
“Sarah’s Key” seamlessly interweaves the story of the roundup with Sarah’s and Julia’s stories. Julia tells her magazine colleagues that French police arrested 13,000 Jews in Paris on July 16-17, 1942, and interned them for several days in appalling conditions in the Velodrome d’Hiver sports arena. About 11,000 internees were children. Ultimately, some 76,000 Jews living in France were deported, most on 74 trains to Auschwitz.
“None came back,” Julia states. Then she asks her young colleagues, “How do you know what you’d have done?”
French teenagers have been “shocked … They couldn’t imagine French police would … do that,” the director said during the question and answer session after the museum’s advance screening July 19.
But the film “was not as controversial in France as you’d expect.” In fact, “I hear very brutal comments coming from here (US) more than France.”
The director and screenwriter was clearly heartened by questions relating to film. He talked of four R’s – real, right, raw, and relevant — “I want to put the truth on film.” So he met with survivors who had been held at the Vel’ d’Hiv. “They told me of the heat, the smell, the crowding of thousands of people.”
The young actress Mélusine who played Sarah also met with two survivors, including one of the children wrenched away from her mother at the Vel’ d’Hiv, one of the most horrifying, poignant scenes.
Was it disturbing for the child actress? “Children know the difference between film and reality,” Paquet-Brenner replied. “Most of the children were more concerned with film-related things, like when it’d be released.”
He praised Mélusine, who portrayed Sarah astoundingly well: “She’s like an old actress in a child’s body.”
As for Kristin Scott Thomas, “No one could understand this better.” She has lived in France for 25 years, was married to a French doctor, and has three half-Jewish French children, speaks perfect French and American English, he said. (She’s best known for “The English Patient” and “Four Weddings and A Funeral.”)
With her, “Three takes and it’s perfect,” the director said. “She’s a world-class actress with such elegance, and she knows how to avoid sentiment.”
This is a world-class film, with elegance, and just a few obvious touches. The film begins with Sarah and her little brother giggling and tickling each other, virtually out of control with ominous, oblivious happiness. In another long take, Sarah and a fellow child escapee float with arms outstretched in the crucifix position in murky water.
Overall, “Sarah’s Key” rises above the pathos and bathos of many other, dare I say, Holocaust movies.
For more info: “Sarah’s Key”, www.weinsteinco.com/sites/sarahs-key. France’s roundup, from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s (USHMM) Holocaust Encyclopedia, www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005453, and photographs relating to France’s roundup, www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/gallery_ph.php?ModuleId=10005453.The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, www.ushmm.org. The French Embassy, La Maison Française, www.houseoffrancedc.org, will screen the film July 26 at 7 PM, followed by a question and answer session with USHMM Senior Historian Peter Black, at 4101 Reservoir Rd, NW, Washington, DC. General admission: $8; Seniors/Students: $5. Reservations required, www.sarahjuillet2011.eventbrite.com/.