Based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s best-selling novel, Sarah’s Key tells the story of an American Journalist on the brink of making big life decisions regarding her marriage and her unborn child. What starts off as a reseach article about the Vel’d’Hiv Roundup in 1942 in France ends up as a journey toward self-discovery as she stumbles upon a terrible secret and discovers the heartbreaking story of a Jewish family forced out of their home, a home that is now their own.
Starring Kristin Scott Thomas as an American journalist living in Paris, “Sarah’s Key” also goes back and forth between events in 2002 and what happened 60 years earlier during the city’s infamous Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup of July 16, 1942, an event that is little known in this country and for many years was not mentioned in France either. On that date, French officials and police, not Germans, rounded up 13,000 of the city’s Jews and herded them together for days in horrible conditions in one of the city’s indoor bicycle-racing tracks before dispatching them first to a transit camp and finally to Auschwitz.
The film based on tragic and shameful moment in French history continues to have consequences in the present day in this screen adaptation of the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay. The gravity of this event was not fully acknowledged until 1995, when President Jacques Chirac famously apologized for French complicity.
Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is an American writer living in Paris with her husband, Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot), an architect who is restoring a block of apartments in Paris owned by his family. Julia learns that Bertrand’s family obtained the building through less than honorable means; the original owners were Jews who were forced to sell in the wake of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in 1942, when the Nazi-affiliated Vichy government arrested over 13,000 Parisian Jews. One of the victims was Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance), a ten-year-old girl who tried to protect her younger brother by locking him in a cupboard in their apartment. Fearing for her brother’s safety, Sarah escapes the crowded cycling stadium where the Jews are being held and tries to make her way back home.
Julia learns of Sarah’s story while doing research on the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, and her investigation teaches her a great deal about an event many in France are reluctant to discuss, as well as the links to Bertrand’s family. Elle S’Appelait Sarah (aka Sarah’s Key) was, along with La Rafle, one of two films concerning the Vel’d’Hiv Roundup released in France in 2010.
The film has two significant threads woven into one that makes it a compelling story. In Paris in 1942 the French police round up 10-year-old Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) and her family. To save her little brother, Sarah locks him in a closet and closely guards the key on her awful journey, which starts at the stifling Vélodrome d’Hiver, where Jews were packed in and made to wait for transport to the camps. Then, sixty or so years later, Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas, excellent as always), an American journalist married to a Frenchman, researches an article about that roundup. Because of the article and an accident of real estate, Julia starts to obsess about Sarah and her fate, even as her own comfortable Parisian life begins to crumble.
Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner; written by Serge Joncour and Mr. Paquet-Brenner, based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay; director of photography, Pascal Ridao; edited by Hervé Schneid; music by Max Richter; production design by Françoise Dupertuis; costumes by Erika Munro; produced by Stéphane Marsil; released by the Weinstein Company. In French and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.
WITH: Kristin Scott Thomas (Julia Jarmond), Mélusine Mayance (Sarah), Niels Arestrup (Jules Dufaure), Frédéric Pierrot (Bertrand Tezac), Michel Duchaussoy (Édouard Tezac), Dominique Frot (Geneviève Dufaure), Gisèle Casadesus (Mamé) and Aidan Quinn (William Rainsferd).
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: A second film on the same theme of the Vel D’Hiv was released in 2010 in France. Rose Bosch’s 2010 film La Rafle (or The Roundup). It was a decent attempt to dramatise one of French history’s most horrifying episodes: thousands of Jews in occupied Paris in 1942 were rounded up at the Nazis’ bidding, herded into a sports centre (the Winter velodrome, or Vel d’Hiv) before being sent on to the death camps. It took what might be called a top-down view of this event: narrating the story and showing the political machinations of high-ranking French and German officials who had decided on this horrendous action. This film, by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, comes at the same subject from a different angle.
Sarah’s Key – by writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner
La Châtre, March 1943. My grandfather, Ludwig Brenner, a musician, a German Jew from Berlin married to a French Catholic violinist, is arrested by the French police. He will die in Majdanek a few days later.
Paris, March 2007. In my living room, I open for the first time Tatiana de Rosnay’s book. A couple of hours later, I am halfway through and I already know I want to make a movie out of it. I am French. I am an atheist. I lost three members of my family during the holocaust. I am from Jewish and German background. I am the perfect guy to make that film… but can I do it right? Does the world need another holocaust movie?
I was lucky enough to read Sarah’s Key before it became a worldwide phenomenon and I was blown away. It was exactly the kind of material I was looking for at the time. I wanted to reconciliate entertainment and substance. I didn’t want to make a superhero movie, but I didn’t want to make a boring movie either. And here is this “holocaust thriller,” a fiction backed by remarkable journalist work by Tatiana, that brings light to what we call in France “la rafle du Vel d’Hiv.” The infamous round up is something that we, the general French public, knew without knowing it. We knew it existed, but we didn’t know the details. We knew that president Chirac made that speech to apologize…wait a minute. To apologize?
July 16, 1942. The French police arrest 13,000 Jews in Paris, park them in the Velodrome d’Hiver in inhumane conditions, and send them to the camps. Even worse, they don’t know what to do with the children, so they send them to the camps too. Most of them died.
When I was a child myself, it was all about the Nazis. But the truth is that it was not only about the Nazis. In many occupied European countries, local governments collaborated with the Germans, and sometimes acted on their own. Anti-Semitism rose in Europe during the thirties and France was no exception. But France was seen as the country of freedom; it represented an ideal, and that’s why my grandfather came here. And that’s also why he refused to flee to the United States when things got really ugly. He thought he was safe here. A lot of them thought so.
We, French, love to teach people lessons. Maybe it’s time for us to reevaluate some shadowy areas of our past. It’s not because we should feel guilty. Most of us were not even born then. It’s because our past defines us, and it’s because we need to know our past to build our future. That’s what I liked the most about the book—the universal message that any of us could someday be related to any war victim, anywhere in the world. Julia, Kristin Scott Thomas’ character, is a non-Jew, non-French journalist living in Paris today. And the way she sees the world totally changes once she discovers Sarah’s story. Sarah was ten years old in 1942. My mother was two.
Paris, 17th district, September 2011. The end credits roll in front of the film crew, friends and family. My mother cries. She never liked to talk about all this. And, busy as I was making this movie, I forgot to tell her this little detail… The film is dedicated to her father, her uncle, and her grandfather. She was incredibly brave so far, not a tear during the first 110 minutes. But she is caught off guard when she sees their names on the black screen. And she finally cries, after 111 minutes and 68 years.
Maybe I made this movie for my mother. My mother and the rest of the world.