Sarah’s Key’ unlocks painful memories of the Shoah
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Sarah’s Key’ unlocks painful memories of the Shoah

Film tells of French collaboration with the Nazis

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

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Melusine Mayance as Sarah in Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film “Sarah’s Key.”

Sixty-nine years ago this month, nearly 13,000 Jews were rounded up by French gendarmes and taken to the Velodrome d’hiver sports arena, not far from the Eiffel Tower in Paris. They were held there for days without food, water, or sanitation facilities, and then were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. French policemen, not Nazi soldiers, carried out the operation – and what is even more startling is that, for 50 years, most French felt no responsibility for the action.

The “Vel’ d’hiv’ roundup,” as it was called, became a symbol of national guilt and outrage. Twenty-five years after the liberation of Paris, in 1969, French Jewish filmmaker Marcel Ophuls took aim at the French nation in his provocative four-and-a-half-hour documentary “The Sorrow and The Pity,” where he dealt with the question of collaboration during World War II. The film was immediately banned by a government that was far from ready to tackle the question of its own culpability in the war. The official government position was that France’s wartime Vichy regime was not synonymous with the French state and in an effort to heal a country torn apart by war, why dig up old dirt? Though not legally screened in France for a decade, there were underground screenings of Ophuls’ film throughout the country and it was widely distributed around the world, even nominated here for an Academy Award. The film ignited soul-searching by a new French generation and the creation of a spate of French films that looked closely at the role of the French in the Holocaust. Still, it took 50 years before a government official, President Jacques Chirac, finally acknowledged that the French nation bore responsibility for the deportation of Jews.

It is against this background that French film writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner took on the adaptation of Tatiana de Rosnay’s popular novel “Sarah’s Key.” It is the story of an American-born investigative journalist, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, who is married to a Frenchmen and based in Paris. There, she discovers something quite strange about her husband’s family’s apartment, into which she is about to move. It ignites an inquiry into the past that takes her to Holocaust archives, interviews with Holocaust survivors, and a visit to the now defunct site of the “Vel’ d’hiv’.” Just exactly what happened there? Who participated? Who is responsible? Who benefited? Strangely, she continually comes up against people who ask why she needs to explore the past? Why don’t you just let it be? What’s past is done! But her search leads her on a quest for meaning and understanding that will dramatically change her life and that of her family. Just exactly who needs to know the truth? In fact, Paquet-Brenner, through the character of journalist Julia Jarmond, does what Ophuls did a generation earlier – he puts the entire nation of France on trial.

How does one relate the stories of so many millions who perished? Paquet-Brenner and novelist de Rosnay do so through the narrative of one girl, Sarah, who was affected that July day in 1942 when she first heard hard knocking on the front door of her family’s apartment. We meet her just before the visit by French police officers, as she plays in her room with her younger brother. Throughout the film, we watch her transformation, as a variety of actions force a horrific change in her circumstances. The events that follow will affect not only her but will leave their mark on those around her, her children, and her grandchildren. By weaving back and forth between the present and Sarah’s story, we not only join Sarah on her grueling journey, but we see how the events of nearly 70 years earlier affect the present.

Today, we are more acutely aware of the trauma suffered by those who survived the Shoah and its profound reverberating effect on subsequent generations. “Sarah’s Key” goes beyond being a story set in the Holocaust; it is a film just as much about the present and how the war crimes of an earlier generation continue to affect the France of today. The film makes no pretense of showing how the French went beyond what was asked of them by the Nazis. In one of the more powerful visual moments, an apple is thrown over a fence to hungry children, and a French soldier seeing what has happened moves in and puts his foot over the piece of fruit. It is in his power to squash the apple or allow it to nourish a French Jewish child. Though under orders, the decision is his to make. During the war, the French often had it in their power to make these choices and most today are not ready to look back and examine them. Not so filmmaker Paquet-Brenner and novelist de Rosnay. They bring us in to join them as they struggle with the question of how memory may sting while healing.

Paquet-Brenner does a terrific job in capturing the changing life of young Sarah, played so magnificently by Mélusine Mayance, generating a feeling of seeing the events unfold through her eyes. The acting of Kristin Scott Thomas, as always, is powerful while understated. The performance by Michel Duchaussoy as Edouard Tezac, the farmer who first chases away Jews then risks his life rescuing them, stands out. The film does justice in its adaptation of a special book. In all, “Sarah’s Key” shows how human beings have great resilience, and even when faced with tragedy, we keep going. This film is a memorable addition to the growing treasure trove of important film works on the Shoah and should be seen by all. It opens today.

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