Sarah’s Key

An event no one wanted to remember ...

… was the story one woman had to tell.

The film Sarah’s Key is really a couple of interwoven stories that play out between 1942 and the present. Kristin Scott Thomas plays a journalist, Julia Jarmond, who on assignment begins to investigate a dark day in history that was all too real.

Adapted from the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, Sarah’s Key is gripping, and moving. It begins with the Round Up of Parisian Jews in the Marais district of Paris on the evenings of July 16 and 17, 1942. This really happened.

They were collected and held in the Vel’ d’Hiv which was an indoor arena for bicycle racing. The conditions were far worse than deplorable. The people were herded in like cattle – no beds, the few working toilets soon became non-working, and very little water or food. These French Jews didn’t know that they would soon be headed for the extermination camps.

Only the Nazi’s were not the perpetrators. No doubt they were behind this, but this was handled by their minions known as the French Vichy government. Sarah is just a 8 year old girl. Before they were taken from their apartment, Sarah managed to hide her 4 year old younger brother in a secret closet so he wouldn’t be taken away with them – they all thought they be back in a few hours.

Only they never came back.

After a few days at the Vel’ d’Hiv, they were taken by bus to what were called transit camps. While there were wooden barracks, this was merely the staging area.  Husband were separated from wives, children from parents. It was horrific to watch. Heart- breaking. From this transit camp, over the next few years, 77 trains departed carrying 76,000 Jews to their eventual doom in places like Auschwitz. But we are spared from those places. We don’t get any further than the transit camp.

In the present, KST’s character, the journalist Julia Jarmond, is an American ex-pat married to a Frenchman. They are living in present day Paris. Slowly the stories take us back and forth from 1942 to the present. Sarah will manage to escape. She just has to get back to Paris for her younger brother. Despite everything, she has managed to hold on to the key to the secret closet.

Julia will come to find that the deeper she digs in to this history, the closer she gets to this Sarah Starzynski who along with her brother never appeared on any of the listings of the deported. Julia is thinking she must have escaped. But she cannot just leave it at that. She can’t leave it unfinished, or unresolved.

Once you begin …

… there’s no going back.

But with the truth, the harder you have to dig to discover it, you will find that there’s always a price to pay. What Julia will discover will stay with her forever more, just as what happened to Sarah, stayed with her the rest of her life.

The film has impact, and draws you in. I think we all have a fascination for the horrible events of the past in the sense that what happened seems unimaginable. Which is why we cannot look away. While we do not know, going in, how Sarah’s particular story will end, we do know of the Holocaust and the thousands and thousands of lives that perished. But we know them only a mass statistic of history, as if they are an abstract. We don’t know them personally. But when you watch how Sarah’ story unfolds, the humanity as well as the lack of humanity, now becomes way more personal to you than you would have thought.

Julia’s story works like a detective story. She peels away the layers of history, and slowly and surely, the story becomes more personal and closer to her and her family than she, even in her wildest dreams, could have imagined or seen coming at the outset.

Kristin Scott Thomas was very impressive in this film. As was the young child actress, Melucine Mayance who portrayed Sarah. There were some interesting technical aspects to the film. The modern Paris, Brooklyn, and New York that we see in the film have a somewhat muted pallet of colors. But in the historical setting, the colors are purposely bolder so that as we watch the impact is greater on us.

The musical score plays a larger than usual role. You do notice the music and often the music adds plenty, but sometimes the music over-kills in the sense that we don’t always need a musical clue.

I’d like to say that this is a must-see film. The story is powerful and the emotional intensity is unforgettable. As for me, I remember in the sense that I can never forget the impact that the 1988 television series, War and Remembrance, written by Herman Wouk, had on me. After watching that, I told myself that I could not watch another Holocaust film. And I didn’t – until Schindler’s List, and now this one. I must say, seeing Sarah’s Key was ever so worthwhile of a film experience for me; and likely will be so for you as well.

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