Posted July 19, 2011 by Jonathan McCalmont in Films

Sarah’s Key

In 1942, the French government rounded up thousands of French Jews and interned them in the Vel D’Hiv velodrome in central Paris.

In 1942, the French government
rounded up thousands of French Jews and interned them in the Vel D’Hiv
velodrome in central Paris.
five days, entire families suffered under inhuman conditions while preparations
were made to ship them first to French internment camps and then to
extermination camps in Eastern Europe. Because this atrocity was organised by
the French government, few records survive meaning that, for a long time, the
event remained buried as the French nation cloaked itself in the comforting
myth of the heroic underdog that resisted German rule with every fibre of its
being. However, as comforting as
those myths might have been, people eventually remembered. They remembered the abominable stench,
the screams of terror and the fact that 13,000 of their friends and neighbours
disappeared overnight.

The film begins with the story of
an American journalist (Kirstin Scott Thomas) who, charged with writing an
article about the Vel D’Hiv, comes to realise that her husband’s family only
gained possession of their Parisian flat because its previous residents had
been murdered by the Nazis. The more the journalist learns about the atrocity,
the more she becomes obsessed with her family’s involvement in allowing the
deaths of thousands of people to slip from popular memory. Interwoven with the
journalist’s attempts to track down Vel D’Hiv survivors is the story of Sarah
Starzynski (Melusine Mayance), the only member of that family to survive the
Val D’Hiv internment. As these two plot strands slowly unfurl and the
connections between the two stories become more and more apparent, Sarah’s
not only shows
us the extent of French complicity in the Holocaust, it also presents us with
an explanation of why it is that the events at the Vel D’Hiv were so swiftly

Paquet-Brenner makes his argument
by shifting between two very different cinematic registers. On the one hand, we have the muted
tones and quiet progress of a journalist uncovering important truths whilst
passing through a rocky patch in her marriage. On the other hand, we have the punishingly loud, shockingly
bright and genuinely horrific reconstructions of Sarah’s experiences in the
camps. By repeatedly dragging us between these two atmospheres, Paquet-Brenner
eloquently demonstrates why it is that people might choose to forget their
involvement in an event as hideous as Vel D’Hiv. After all, why live with the
piercing shriek of reality when the muted tones of myth are so much more

One side effect of this shifting
tone is that Sarah’s struggle comes across as being far more interesting and
moving than the story of a successful journalist squabbling with her husband.
Sensing this imbalance between the two halves of the film, Paquet-Brenner
attempts to redress the balance by wringing every last drop of melodrama from
the journalist’s investigation. This means forcing the audience to sit through
an entirely superfluous sub-plot involving abortion and then dragging them back
and forth across the Atlantic as the journalist tries to track down either
Sarah or her surviving relatives. Unfortunately, none of these sections prove
to be as moving as Sarah’s story and so the film comes across as needlessly
padded and about half an hour too long.

Part of the problem is that Sarah’s
is a film that
feels the need to justify its existence. Indeed, the cinematic campaign to
confront France with the reality of its wartime self dates back at least as far
as Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and The Pity (1969) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969) without mentioning the fact that Joseph
Losey’s Monsieur Klein (1979)
already addresses the Vel d’Hiv round up in cinematic form. Given the existence
of so many great films dealing with the same issues, it is perhaps unavoidable
that Sarah’s Key should feel intimidated but by devoting three quarters of an
hour to the question of why people born after the war should accept some
collective guilt for what happened before they were born, the film starts to
overstretch itself and lose sight of its true strength, namely communicating
the horrors of the Vel D’Hiv and the self-serving amnesia that followed it.

Despite the film’s argument not
being entirely convincing, Sarah’s Key remains a well-directed, well-acted and
genuinely thought-provoking addition to a cinematic tradition of cultural
reappraisal that continues to be both necessary and vibrant.

Jonathan McCalmont