I do think the truth hurts, but nothing hurts more than secrets”, says Tatania de Rosnay, author of the best selling book of fiction Sarah’s Key, on which acclaimed French director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has based his excellent film.
The film deals with the catastrophic and long-term effects of the little known Vel’ d’Hiv roundup by French police of Jewish men, women and children on the 16-17 July 1942. Paris’s Vel’d’Hiv was a glass roofed winter Vélodrome where for five days approximately 13,000 Jewish families were imprisoned before being sent to the German death camps in occupied Poland. France’s complicity in sending 75,700 Jews to these camps (many of them children under the age of six) was only officially acknowledged by President Jacques Chirac – a staggering 53 years later – on 16 July 1995.
The roundup is shown through the eyes of a little Jewish child called Sarah Starzynski (beautifully played by Melusine Mayance) and, in parallel, the eyes of Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) a present day journalist researching an article for the 60th anniversary of the event.
When the police scream at her mother to pack her bags, upstairs ten year old Sarah plays a pretend game of hide and seek with her four year old brother and locks him in an cupboard to protect him. Imprisoned in the sweltering and filthy Vel’d’Hiv stadium she becomes frantic about him, and the film follows her brave attempts to rescue her brother. What is particularly moving is watching the desperate attempts of a child to cope with events so much bigger than her, events no child should ever have to deal with.
As the film progresses we only find out what happened to Sarah through Julia. She becomes obsessed with the story when she realizes that the family apartment her husband is renovating was originally the Starzynski’s. A dogged and persistent investigator, her search for the truth forces her to ask questions of herself and others previously left unasked. As Julia pries open family secrets she is forced to deal with the truth about her own marriage. She is no longer willing to pretend.
Julia asks her fellow journalists the question, “What would you have done if you were alive then?” The film deals with the full complexity of human behaviour during the Holocaust; monstrous acts of brutality and quiet and heroic acts of kindness. Perpetrators, bystanders and rescuers. Parisians who turn their Jewish neighbours in to the police who subsequently separate mothers from their children, villagers who pass food across barbed wire fences to Jewish children imprisoned in transition camps, rescuers who are both reluctant and brave, a soldier who assists in escape. We find that, “at a crossroads where ethical action and rational self-interest lay in opposite directions, not everyone chose to look out for themselves” as Holocaust researcher Mark Klempner says in his study of rescuers.
Not everything about this film is excellent– it tries to do too much, the story is presented through multiple viewpoints and Julia’s globe-spanning investigations become mildly irritating. But what is so powerful and satisfying is its ability to deal unflinchingly with complex issues without reverting to easy answers, no doubt due in part to the fact that director Gilles Paquet-Brenner lost family in the Shoah.
There are no Hollywood happy endings or one-dimensional stereotypes of goodies and baddies here. And there are many valuable insights: That acts of kindness cannot always heal the long-term ramifications of trauma – it’s effects reverberate through generations. That most people have a great deal of trouble facing up to reality. That people deal with the truth only when they are ready, when living with lies becomes too hard. That the truth will set one free but with truth telling comes consequences – a price to pay.
Sarah’s Key is an important, disturbing film with striking relevance for today. It is also a deeply rewarding cinema experience – a production that manages to carry the considerable weight of its subject matter with grace and poise.
Bronwen Hanna is a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity