‘Sarah’s Key’ opens at the River East theaters downtown and the Century 12 and CineArts 6 in Evanston on Friday, July 29th.
Scenarios like this only exist in my fevered mind, but I have this image of French director Gilles Paquet-Brenner watching Denis Villeneuve’s recent ‘Incendies’ and thinking ‘Nice film, nice job. But I see where he went wrong, too, and I’m going to be sure not to do that in my film.’ Paquet-Brenner’s film, Sarah’s Key (Elle s’appelait Sarah)(France,2010), is an admirable success on a number of levels, not least of which is his artful integration of two stories told at different times in history, and unifying them into a mutually involving, and moving, whole much greater than the sum of its parts.
There are numerous reasons to loathe France’s Vichy government, the nominal state institution that was formed after the Nazi occupation of France in 1940 (and probably more reasons to revere the courageous French Resistance). While the Germans maintained the northern territories under direct German rule, they allowed the southern half of France to form a provisional ‘free-zone’ government, under the condition that nothing they did conflicted with German policy. The Vichy French, almost unconditionally, collaborated with the Third Reich, most notably in rounding up Jews as part of the Nazi’s ‘Jewish Question’ policies. One of the most notorious incidents was the ‘Vel d’Hiv Roundup,’ July 1942, when French police forces were ordered to detain over 22,000 Jews, primarily not of French origin, from the greater Paris area. Many citizens were tipped off and successfully fled, but of the 13,000 that were eventually taken, over 7,500 were detained in the Velodrome d’Hiver, a bicycling track and sports stadium in Paris’ 15th arrondissement. For five days, only tiny supplies of food and water were brought in by a small handful of relief workers. Bathrooms were blocked, and there was only one working water tap in the entire stadium. Hungry, filthy and sickened, those who didn’t commit suicide there (and many did) were later deported to internment camps. Most ended up at Auschwitz.
The film tells two stories. The first is the short history of the Starzynski family, Polish-Jew refugees living in Paris. When the French police come to claim them in the Roundup, 10-year-old Sarah locks her younger brother in a hidden bedroom closet (young Mélusine Mayance’s portrayal of the young Sarah is effectively fierce and forthright). After a futile police search, Sarah and her parents are sent to the Vel d’Hiv for a harrowing five days, and then separated by their captors. The segregated children end up at the Beaune-la-Rolande internment camp, where Sarah and another young captive effect an escape and makes an eventful trek back to Paris, hoping to reunite with Sarah’s brother.
Paralleling this story is the modern-day effort of French-American journalist Julia Jarmond (always-reliable pro Kristen Scott Thomas) to research the history of the Vel d’Hiv Roundup in the face of the French Conseil d’Etat’s 2009 declaration that the French state bears full political and moral responsibility for the Vichy regime’s role in the deportation of Jews during the occupation. When she discovers that her husband’s parents acquired their Marais-district flat in July, 1942, she’s compelled to further investigate the circumstances, and discovers the trail of the Starzynski family.
As compelling as Julia’s investigation becomes, there are a number of aspects of Julia’s story that seem to have little, if anything, to do with her investigations into the Starzynski family. But Paquet-Brenner, adapting Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel along with Serge Joncour, is subtly scrupulous about the moral tone that informs her decisions, both toward her work and the events of her own life. Julia is as fully realized a character as Sarah herself, not just a framing device or contemporary point-of-reference; she carries Sarah’s story past her own investigative purposes into the larger world, and generates both intimately personal, and pointedly political, revelations about the horrors of war and our capacities for denial. Kristen Scott Thomas absolutely nails the complexity of her role while never competing with the gravity and import of Sarah’s own story. Paquet-Brenner’s visual choices are just as intelligently straightforward – the film is visually rich and evocative, shot and edited with a real sense of invention that doesn’t draw attention to itself, and real confidence in his visual depictions of the two time periods. And Paquet-Brenner gets solid supporting work from Aidan Quinn and Niels Arestrup.
While it’s easy to hold ‘Holocaust movies’ at arm’s length – not because of a lack of empathy, but because the subject matter is still, to this day, so intensely tragic, so irreconcilable – I’m confident that the story of what these two very different women make of their lives in the face of that tragedy will outweigh the more depressing aspects of its background for discerning audiences. I found ‘Sarah’s Key’ to be a terrific film, complex, richly varied in tone and intent, and, ultimately, very moving, very cathartic.