… history …

Sarah’s Key contains some of the most powerful, heart-wrenching scenes ever filmed — and this is not sensationalism, but truth.  This film is important for making everyone aware of a particularly horrific episode in France during World War II and — if you didn’t know — what human beings are capable of, for ill as well as for good.

Based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, Elle s’appelait Sarah, “her name was Sarah,” this is an unsparing account of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup in which tens of thousands of Jews were literally pulled from their homes to be sent to their deaths in concentration camps.  The Starzynski family is being dragged away but Sarah, 10 years old (Melusine Mayance), manages to hide her younger brother in a wardrobe, taking the key with her as she, her mother and father are brutally transported to the Velodrome d’Hiver stadium — hence the name Vel’ d’Hiv’.  With the unflinching realism of a great documentary, we see the thousands of people of all ages held there for days without access to food, water or toilets.  Here is  Hell on Earth.

Surely it can’t get any worse but it does as the men are violently separated from their wives and children and then — can it get worse than that? — the children under 12, Sarah, feverishly ill, among them — are literally torn from the arms of their mothers.  These police are not Nazis but French functionaries of the wartime Vichy government that cooperated with the Nazis, which makes no difference in their level of brutality.

Through it all, separated from her brother, her father, and her mother, Sarah, ill, alone in a children’s concentration camp, is totally focused on getting back to her brotherl and unlock the closet.  With astonishingly daring, she escapes with another girl from the barbed wire compound, helped by a kindly guard who lifts the entangling wire.  Once they’re out, the guard is left with the bloody imprint of the jagged wire on his palm, like the stigmata of Christ.  It’s his second kindness to the little Jewish girl.  One worries about what will happen to him, too.

Some of the French say they weren’t aware of the Roundup (though living across the street from the stinking stadium), some admit to a vague awareness but “What could you do?”  But some are courageous in their opposition to inhumanity.  Sarah and her co-escapee find their way to the rural home of a couple with grandchildren Sarah’s age, the Dufaures, who at first try to “avoid trouble” but then take them in and bravely brazen it out with the police in order to call in a physician to attend the other little girl who is, however, beyond saving.  And — since Sarah is unstoppable in her attempt to get back to her little brother — the Dufaures accompany her to Paris, risking their own arrest, in a great train scene in which the police share their compartment and the conductor comes looking for everybody’s transit papers.  And what happens when Sarah gets back to the old apartment and the locked wardrobe … ?

The film blands down as it turns to the aftermath of Sarah’s return to Paris.  Two stories run parallel, Sarah’s and, to bring it to the present, that of Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist who, in our own time, is writing an investigative story about the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup.  In the course of her research, she uncovers Sarah’s story and learns that she, unlike her mother and father, did not die in the concentration camps.  Julia sets about finding out what happened to her, and learning more and more about the brave and agonized little girl, takes Sarah deep into her heart.  Meanwhile Julia and her French husband are about to move in to an apartment that had been in her husband’s family for 50 years — until Julia, through her research, comes upon the nauseating fact that her in-laws apartment, that she’s about to move in to, had become vacant 50 years ago because the  Starzynskis had been ripped out of it.

Confronted by Julia, her husband’s father recounts what happened when he was a boy during the war and Sarah returned to the apartment with the key to free her brother.  His memories provide a breakthrough in Julia’s search for Sarah: as she uncovers the full complexity and tragedy of Sarah’s existence, Julia frees herself from a careless, overbearing husband who wants her to abort her unexpected late-life pregnancy but — having learned of the deaths of so many children, she cannot go through with the abortion.  Eventually, Julia shares her knowledge of Sarah’s background and fate with Sarah’s now adult son who gains a deeper understanding of his mother and himself.

The story about the present — Julia, her pregnancy, her distracted, ambitious, cell-phone addicted husband, and that of Sarah’s son — is superficial compared with the story of the past.  We see Julia in the U.S. with her little girl — but what about her twelve-year old daughter left in France?  And the French father who, even if he opposed the birth, might now welcome his new little daughter?  Julia says she’s planning to go back to Paris so she, the younger child, her older daughter and the father can be “near”.  Near.  What would the Dufaures, who so lovingly took in Sarah, have thought of that?  Julia in fact abandons her older daughter, her husband, too, in favor of the new child which dissipates the impact of what she has come to feel as the gem-like value of each child.  At the end Julia and Sarah’s son embrace powerfully.  With understanding?  Maybe.  But it has the movie look of “they all lived happily ever after”.  I don’t think so. .

This “present” story dominates the later part of the film so, on leaving, one has to think back to connect again with the true power of Sarah’s Key.  Without that thinning out, it could have been one of the great films but it remains compelling, gripping, important.

It’s interesting to think about Sarah’s Key in comparison with another recent film with a similar theme, Inglourious Basterds.  In that film, too, one little Jewish girl escapes the massacre, by the Nazis, of her entire family and, growing the maturity in Paris, must deal with her survival in the face of total family loss.  Inglourious Basterds is a more thrilling, artful film, brilliant, with a driving dramatic arc and a climactic finale one can wish were true — but, plain and simple, is counter to history.   In contrast, Sarah’s Key, though with a “present” story that saps some of its strength, remains more faithful to the truths of history, which  gives it an equivalent weight and lasting impact.

I’m glad for both of them.

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