On July 16th and 17th 1942, the Jewish citizens of Paris were arrested and detained in appalling conditions in an enclosed bicycle track called the Vélodrome d’Hiver (Winter Velodrome), . This event becomes known as the Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv or the Vel d’Hiv Round Up. One of the families forced into the Vel d’Hiv are the Starzynskis. Ten year old Sarah Starzynski has locked her younger brother Michel in a cupboard at home to keep him safe. Trapped in the Velodrome, the Starzynskis are worried about the fate of Michel.
SARAH’S KEY is based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s international bestseller Elle s’appelait Sarah. The novel and film tell a fictional tale based on the real events of the Vel d’Hiv Roundup. The film is two parallel stories; the tale of Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) and the investigation into her life, sixty years later, by a Paris-based American Journalist, Julia Armond (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Julia begins to delve into the story as part of an article she is writing on the Vel’ d’Hiv Round Up. She works out that the apartment that her husband is renovating must once have been owned by a Jewish family. The apartment has been in her husband’s family, the Tezacs, for sixty years. In fact, it was occupied by the Tezacs after the Starzynskis were forcibly removed in July 1942. After making this discovery, Julia becomes obsessed with uncovering everything she can about Sarah and her brother Michel.
What happened to the French Jews who were arrested, interned and transported to labour and death camps is the same horrific story that we now understand as the experience of millions in The Holocaust or The Shoah. The variation to this tale in SARAH’S KEY is that it deals with the culpability of the French authorities.
Although the Vel d’Hiv Round Up and all subsequent activities that involved the State’s persecution of French Jews was at the behest of the occupying Nazis, much of the arresting and transportation was done by French authorities.
This is the foul secret that Julia uncovers in her investigations. Not that it is truly a secret, rather it’s a piece of history the French would like to forget. Many of the older people Julia attempts to speak with do not want to admit that their parents did anything that would now seem morally reprehensible. Again and again she runs into decades of lies and rationalisation.
The structure of this tale is challenging. Jumping back and forth between time periods requires some alertness on the part of the audience. The first half of the film is the most powerful, dealing as it does with the terrible events that occurred inside the Velodrome and later at the Beaune-la-Rolande camp. The last third of the film is curious; both Julia and Sarah’s story lose their dramatic force to some degree.
Ten year old Sarah is played with amazing focus by Mélusine Mayance. She is heart-breakingly perfect in the role. Kristin Scott Thomas’s Julia is a difficult part because she is mostly the observer and chronicler of distant events, however she achieves this with her customary skill and attention to detail.
SARAH’S KEY is at times a harrowing experience. It is an attempt to understand events that defy comprehension. The death of millions can seem like a mere number to those of us who weren’t there. Telling the story through the eyes of a child makes enormous events more understandable. Can people really learn the lessons of history? SARAH’s KEY makes you hope that we can.
SARAH’S KEY is in French with English subtitles. It runs for 111 minutes. It has opened in Western Australia and is released in the rest of the country on Thursday December 23rd. I rated it 3.5/5.