SARAH’S KEY. Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Fréderic Pierrot, Michel Duchaussoy, Aidan Quinn. Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner. Rated M (Mature themes and holocaust scenes). 111 minutes.
As well as being a horrendous historical event, the Holocaust has become a metaphor for the greatest cruelty human beings can commit against their own kind. A large number of films have been made about it, but there are many who believe that the Shoah (modern Hebrew for ‘catastrophe’) is not a fit subject for a film at all.
The argument here is that any attempt to cinematically recreate the obscene barbarism of ‘life’ in the death camps falls so far short of the reality, it trivialises what for many people is sacrosanct. In large measure, this is what lies behind criticism of such films as Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful.
Sarah’s Key, on the other hand, is a French film about the Holocaust with a difference. Set in Paris in 1942, but focussing on events affecting two families, both then and in the present, this powerful, wonderfully acted film opens a door into the past that allows hope at the same time as it narrates with fresh shock and immediacy, some little known aspects about Word War 2 in France.
Based on the novel Elle s’appelait Sarah by Tatiana de Rosnay and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, Julia Jarmond (Kirsten Scott Thomas) plays an American journalist married to a Frenchman living in France, who is researching the round-up of Parisian Jews by the French police in 1942.
Julia and her husband Bertrand Tezac (Fréderic Pierrot) are in the process of renovating the apartment in the Marais (the old Jewish quarter) that has been in Bertrand’s family since the war. But as Julia pursues her investigation into this dark period in French history, she stumbles by chance upon a story that soon impinges heavily on her own life and family.
Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) is a ten-year-old girl, who in an effort to save her younger brother Michel from the round-up, locks him in a secret cupboard in their apartment, telling him that she will return and release him later. Herded into the Winter Velodrome in Paris along with 13,000 other Jews, Sarah alerts her parents to where Michel is. But in stifling heat and as conditions in the stadium worsen steadily and panic sets in, Sarah becomes increasingly agitated and anxious about having left her little brother alone.
What happens to Sarah in her desperate attempt to escape and rescue Michel, both in the Velodrome and later in a transit camp in France, is told in flashback, and as the film progresses, the past and present blur in a way that gives an intense emotional realism and poignancy to the story being told.
Any tale of survival during the Holocaust is dependent on seemingly miraculous circumstances, mostly by chance, but sometimes through human intervention. And in Sarah’s Key, small, seemingly random acts of courage or kindness are shown to have enormous implications.
Sarah’s Key is absorbing, must-see cinema. But what distinguishes Sarah’s Key is not simply Paquet-Brenner sure, imaginative direction, Pascal Riao’s splendid hand-held camerawork, or the universally fine acting from all the cast.
It is the understanding that while (almost) all hope had to be abandoned when entering the hell of Auschwitz, in the purgatory of occupied France and the Drancy internment camp where most Jews were held before being deported, there were still people who against their own instinct for self-preservation, responded to the divine spark of compassion within themselves.
Out December 23 2010.
Mrs Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.