The New York Times bestselling book “Sarah’s Key” has been given a cinematic makeover and was released in New York City and Los Angeles last weekend. It is opening on a limited number of screens in major cities around the country this weekend. “Sarah’s Key” follows two lives, one of a young French-born Jewish girl during World War II fighting to escape infamous “Vel’ d’Hiv” roundup in Paris and rescue her brother, who is hiding in a secret closet in their home. The other is of Julia, an American journalist living in modern Paris, who researches Sarah’s story while struggling with the decision to keep or abort the baby growing inside of her. The story, while fictional, illustrates the value of life while also illuminating a little-known tragedy from World War II.
The Vel’ d’Hiv roundup occurred on July 16, 1942, when French police and gendarmes, acting under Gestapo orders, rounded up thousands of Jewish men, women and children and held them in horrific conditions in a large sport stadium for days without working plumbing, and little food or water. Soon after, the police transported the Jews by train to Drancy, a holding camp outside of Paris, and then sent them to Auschwitz, where almost all of them were murdered.
French director Gilles Paquet-Brenner gained recognition for his first feature, “Pretty Things,” in 2001. In “Sarah’s Key,” he shows a knack for capturing powerful emotions realistically, and for putting the audience in the scene. Here are a few comments from a recent interview with him about the film:
“I knew what the roundup was [before reading “Sarah’s Key”], but I didn’t realize what it meant to have the French police banging on doors … taking families and sending them to death,” Gilles said of the roundup. “And so I was very interested that people understood that.” The horror of this is what makes the book, “Sarah’s Key,” stand out. But the story holds personal importance for Gilles too. “I lost some of my family during the Holocaust, so I had a very personal connection. But you know it’s not the number one reason I made this movie. The real number one reason is ‘how can we make history feel closer to us?'”
The film’s power comes not only from its strong source material, but from its exceptional cast. The most impressive performance comes from a young French actress named Mélusine Mayance, who plays the young Sarah.
“I used to say before making the movie that we have to find the French Dakota Fanning, meaning this … old actress in a child’s body,” Giles said. “And that’s what [Mélusine Mayance] is. What’s amazing with Mélusine is that she’s a great actress. She’s not a child who acts – she knows … about how to move, how to place herself for the camera, she knows about pacing.”
The film recently screened at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
“You know, I’ve had a lot of screenings all around the world but this one was special,” Giles said of the showing. “It was a whole process to have that [Holocaust Museum] screening. There are top historians that basically checked everything in the film to really make sure it was accurate from a historical point of view, and when they said, ‘Yes it is, we can do that screening,’ it’s not we ‘can‘ it’s ‘we want to screen the movie.’ … Can you imagine the pride it is to have such an endorsement?”
“Sarah’s Key” opened this weekend in New York City and Los Angeles. On Friday, July 29 it will open in major cities around the nation. A review will follow soon.