Sarah’s Key

Friday night I had the opportunity to go see the French drama Sarah’s Key (Elle s’appelait Sarah), a movie I knew little about based on a book I did not know existed.  In other words, I walked into the film with absolutely zero preconceptions.  I walked out thinking I just saw a fantastic film.

The story is fictional, though centered around the true events of the July 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, where French police in German-occupied Paris arrested 13,152 mostly Jewish emigres and refugees, along with their French-born children and grandchildren, and shipped them by rail to Auschwitz where they were murdered. The film goes back and forth between a modern day journalist’s investigation into these events and a young girl named Sarah’s experience in the event itself.  The film shows how the French helped, sometimes enthusiastically, the Nazi’s in carrying out their murderous deeds. It also shows the humanity and courage of other French citizens, in trying to protect and save Jewish people from the Vichy authorities.

When the authorities come for her family, ten year old Sarah locks her little brother in a hidden closet to hide and protect him, telling him to stay there silently until she returns. She thinks she will be back very soon, not realizing they are being taken away for good. Sarah finds herself in a deportation detention camp, in squalid conditions. She is separated from her mother and father, who have been sent to Auschwitz to their death. Sarah escapes with a friend, with the help of a sympathetic police guard. They end up exhausted, sleeping in a dog house at a nearby village. The owner finds them and decides to help, despite the danger to himself and his wife. They help Sarah get back to the apartment in Paris where she had left her brother.  Along with the new inhabitants of the apartment…

{Ed. Note: Plot spoiler from here or out, so stop reading if you are going to see this movie.}

…she finds her brother still locked in the closet, dead. Sarah continues to live on the village farm with the couple that has helped her, growing up sad and melancholy.  At 18 she runs away, eventually making it to the United States. She gets married and has a son named William.  When her son reaches nine, she is no longer able to live with her guilt, and commits suicide.

Meanwhile, intertwined with that story, the husband of a modern day journalist (named Julia) inherits the apartment of his grandparents. Julia, having previously done investigative work on the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, realizes that the apartment came into her husband’s family about the same time as the roundup. She gets curious and begins to investigate. Her father-in-law eventually tells her the truth, that his father was in the room with Sarah when she found the body of her brother. Julia begins a quest to find out what happened to Sarah. She finds William, who initially has no idea of his real background, it having been hidden from him for his own protection. Eventually William’s father, on his death-bed, tells him the truth. The film ends with William meeting Julia for lunch years later, intending on telling her what he has found out. Julia now has a daughter and is divorced. He asks Julie her daughters name, which obviously ends up being Sarah. William breaks down.

The movie is extremely well done, with terrific acting and wonderful cinematography. The mood of the settings perfectly matches that of the story. Kristin Scott-Thomas is particularly excellent, as is Mélusine Mayance as the ten year old Sarah. The film focuses on the narrow story of Sarah, specifically on the human and psychological element, staying away from unnecessary graphic images, leaving the viewer well aware of the pain that comes from those unseen images.  It is a focused film, not meant to be a wide ranging look at the Jewish genocide or the French involvement with the Nazi’s, but at the complex impact on one whose life was impacted by the horrors committed. This limited focus gives the film an amazing poignancy. I highly recommend this and wish it would be shown in high schools around the world.

Here is the trailer:

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