The words “Never forget” are inscribed in a Paris memorial honoring the victims of the “so-called ‘government of the French state'” during World War II. The memorial rests on the spot of the government’s most notorious act of villainy, the infamous Vel d’Hiv roundup of July 1942. On July 16, French police under Gestapo orders lockedthousands of Parisian Jews in the Vélodrome d’Hiver sports stadium for days, in horrible conditions, then transported them to the Drancy holding camp before finally sending them to their deaths at Auschwitz. There were almost no survivors.
Released last week in Los Angeles and New York City, and this weekend in select cities nationwide, the 2010 French film “Sarah’s Key” brings that tragedy to the screen. “Sarah’s Key” is based on author Tatiana de Rosnay’s New York Times bestseller by the same name, and follows two lives, decades apart, connected by a long-kept, horrible secret. Sarah (Mélusine Mayance), a young Jewish girl taken with her parents to the Vel’ d’Hiv, fights to return to Paris where her brother is locked away in a secret closet in their apartment, hiding from the police. Years later, in modern day Paris, American journalist Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) begins to research Sarah’s story while struggling with the decision of whether to keep or abort her baby – a baby that her husband does not want.
The film, like the book, flips between 1942 and modern-day France and New York, defying traditional World War II films, since over half of the story takes place in the 2000s. Co-writer and director Gilles Pacquet-Brenner added a few scenes to flesh out Sarah’s history, and streamlined Julia’s relationship with her husband and fellow journalists, but left the bestselling story largely intact.
Young Sarah, played by a brilliant French actress named Mélusine Mayance, has haunting eyes and maturity beyond her years. As Pacquet-Brenner says, “She’s a great actress. She’s not a child who acts.” Coupled with the stunning, mysterious Charlotte Poutrel playing a grown up Sarah, Pacuqet-Brenner presents an unforgettable character who endures almost incomprehensible tragedy. Kristin Scott Thomas also delivers a moving performance as the journalist Julia, and between Thomas and Aidan Quinn, they keep an emotional ending from becoming melodramatic.
Pacquet-Brenner presents the roundup and holding scenes at the Vel’ d’Hiv roughly, pushing the camera right into the crowd, below the adults, giving the audience the perspective of a little child. Later, when mothers and children are torn apart at Drancy, he does it again. The unsettling style drives the scenes home.
“Sarah’s Key” draws a comparison between what happened during World War II to our lives today in a very unique way, showing how lives can intertwine and impact, even when separated by the years. “It was very interesting to show how the facts of the past can affect the present and how you need to know, understand and face your past,” said the director recently in an interview with BH. “Because we in the present come from the past; the past is what defines us.”
In “Sarah’s Key,” Julia’s quest to discover Sarah’s history becomes not only an effort to keep the horrific truth of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup from dying, but to illustrate that the Holocaust’s detestable devaluation of human life is not forgotten, and that through remembering, there is “the hope of what we can become” – better, changed people ourselves. It is a moving reminder to never forget this tragedy, and to value every life.