Review: Sarah’s Key
Every few years it seems there is a new film or book that addresses the Holocaust. This dark chapter in world history is so cruel it’s hard to believe that it was real. One of the most recent takes on this painful subject is Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s Sarah’s Key which tells the story of a Jewish family living in France in the 1940s and of a journalist in the present day who is learning about their story.
The film focuses on 1942 where 10 year old Sarah Starzynski (Melusine Mayance) hides her brother Michel (Paul Mercier) in a clandestine closet and locks it, retaining the key. Sarah is taken along with her parents to the Velodrome d’Hiver where all Jewish families are being kept by the Paris Police and French Secret Service before deportation to camps. Sarah is firstly separated from her father (Arben Bajraktaraj) and then her mother (Natasha Mashkevich), all the time desperate to get home and release her brother from the closet but can she get back to him in time? The film also picks up in 2009 where journalist Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) begins to unravel the story of Sarah’s family as her husband (Frederic Pierrot) inherits an apartment from his grandfather, which came into his parent’s ownership around the same time as the Jews were being rounded up in 1942! Can Julia unravel the story and will we find out what became of Sarah?
It’s clear from the start that this is not going to be the easiest of films to watch. Sarah and her family are forced out of their home at the outset and taken to the Velodrome d’Hiver where grateful French families looking on soon cannot leave their windows open because of the smell! The Jewish families are left with no access to toilets, while they await deportation to the camps. The horrifying twist to the story is that the French are the ones rounding the Jews up and not the Nazis as you might expect. Sarah’s father is horrified when she tells him her brother is locked in a closet back home but Sarah’s seemingly foolishness is meant with the best of intentions. She genuinely believes her family will soon be home but when they are taken to the camps it is clear she has to escape quickly to save her brother. Sarah’s is a heart-rending journey, separated from her parents, becoming friends with another girl in the camp, finding compassion on more than one occasion from one camp guard and preying on the mercy of an elderly French couple that initially close their doors to the two girls even though they appear to be starving and in need of help. Whether Sarah saves her brother and what happens to her in the aftermath is something that slowly unfolds in the present day when Julia picks up the story.
Julia is curious about the apartment her husband inherits and having previously written an article about the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup she digs deep and finds that her new home is the apartment that Sarah and her family once lived in! Julia becomes determined to trace Sarah’s whereabouts and this is where the film becomes ever more poignant than its opening half. Julia’s search takes her beyond Franc e and onto America and even Italy where the truth about Sarah waits. Given the subject of the film, it’s hardly surprising that happy endings are in scant supply but this is such a compelling story that you’ll be satisfied and moved at the same time.
Sarah’s Key is a haunting tale with the title being very apt given how central it is to the overall narrative. Everything hinges on that one moment when Sarah decides to protect her brother by locking him away from the French authorities. Thomas is very good in the lead but you’ll most likely be drawn to Mayance who delivers a moving performance as the young Sarah. Though there is some hope at the end of the film, it is still a sad tale and some people will need to have those tissues on standby.
Sarah’s Key is a moving tale set during the time of the Holocaust that conveys the brutality suffered by one Jewish family that continues to impact in the present more than sixty years later. The film is another good reminder of this appalling period of history but it is one to be savoured when remembering those that somehow lived through it, while many others were sadly not so fortunate. This is well worth seeing.
(Film source: reviewer’s own copy)