Sarah’s Key (French: Elle s’appelait Sarah)
2010 was the year that French filmakers turned their attention to French involvement in the Shoah and in particular the July 1942 Vel d’Hiv round up of over 13,000 Jews by the French police, so called because the internees were initially held in the ‘Vel d’Hiv’ Parisian velodrome before being taken to internment camps outside of Paris and onto extermination camps in Poland.
Initially, I thought this film was another film about the Shoah but it is so much more than that.
Sarah’s Key is narrated through the eyes of Julia, an American journalist living in Paris (Kristan Scott Thomas) who becomes absorbed in finding out what happened to the Stazynski family living in the Marais and the 10 year old Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) and her brother, who have no record of being deported to Auschwitz. The film interweaves the present day story with the past, bringing the character of Sarah and Julia closer together until it dramatically changes the life of the latter.
At the beginning of the film we see Sarah Starzynski lock her brother in a cupboard when the police come to arrest her family in the round up. She promises to return for him. The story is gripping and emotional. It is difficult at times to watch and like many films depicting the Shoah grabs you from the beginning and never lets you go, depicting powerlessness, victimhood as well as touching on the role and motives of perpetrators, victims and bystanders. Indeed, the modern day story acts as a device to break up the difficult and highly emotional scenes depicting the past and gives the viewer pauses for reflection.
Where Sarah’s Key is most powerful and perhaps different from many other films in the genre is where it deals with survivor’s guilt and how it impacts on those individuals and those around them: indeed you come out of the cinema realising that the pain caused by the Shoah resonates through the generations. The director in linking so vividly the modern day with 1942 and its aftermath leads us on a journey of understanding and empathy with the survivor. How would we have felt having survived? How would we have reacted after the war? Who would we have told and what could we tell them? Would we have been so brave.
Sarah’s Key is much more about these questions than any others. Hours, days later, I am still asking them. That’s the real impact of this film.
The film is released in the UK and US on August 5th.