Exposing France’s role in Holocaust
Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film exposes the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup during World War II. Many moviegoers will learn about the incident for the first time here.
An American journalist living in Paris (Kristen Scott Thomas) becomes obsessed with a Holocaust story.
In the roundup, thousands of Jews living in Paris’ Marais neighborhood were forced into a sports stadium, torn away from family members, and shipped to concentration camps.
Julia Jarmond (Thomas) convinces her editor to let her write a 10-page article documenting the 60th anniversary of the roundup.
Protecting her brother
Two parallel stories unfold. Julia pursues leads and interviews witnesses. She discovers that she is personally connected to the Starzinski family, Polish Jews living in Paris during the German occupation.
Sarah Starzinski’s story is told in flashbacks. Police arrive one day. Sarah dashes to protect her young brother Michel. She locks him in a closet for safekeeping, sure that she will return soon.
Days pass in the crowded stadium. Panic and disease spread. Desperate to return and rescue Michel, Sarah falls ill.
Captives rounded up
Under Nazi order, French police arrested 13,000 Jews in July 1942. The prisoners were forced into the Velodrome d’Hiver, an indoor bicycle racing track.
With no access to running water or toilets, they slept in their seats or on concrete floors. Families were separated and herded into trains bound for French internment camps.
Thomas (The English Patient; I’ve Loved You So Long) and Mayance play off each other beautifully with moving character studies. Past and present feel immediate and urgent.
Thomas, Mayance are brilliant
Thomas is intent and driven as she speaks both French and American English. Her brilliance shines despite a redundant script. Mayance is a talent to watch, lively and convincing here.
Julia learns that Sarah escaped from the Beaune-la-Rolande camp in Loiret. She tracks down a farm couple (Niels Arestrup and Dominique Frot) who sheltered the girl from Nazi soldiers.
Julia seeks out survivors
The mystery of Sarah’s life deepens as Julia locates her surviving relatives, including William (Aidan Quinn).
Julia travels abroad to pursue the story. She argues with her French husband Bertrand (Frederic Pierrot) and reassures her teenage daughter Zoe (Karina Hin). In one of the film’s contrived moments, Julia learns that the Starzinski’s apartment was acquired by Bertrand’s family in 1942.
A French soldier helps Sarah escape from the camp. In real life (and beyond the scope of Sarah’s Key), other roundups followed. Prisoners were eventually deported to Auschwitz.
In 1959, fire destroyed much of the Vel’ d’Hiver. Apartments and a Ministry of the Interior building stand on the site today.
Powerful chapter of history
Julia’s over-written part weighs down the narrative. Emphasis on her pregnancy and failing marriage is distracting. The too-neat epilogue turns trite.
Yet Sarah’s Key brings history to life with personal revelation. Paquet-Brenner has made a daring, important film. (4 out of 5 stars)
Sarah’s Key 2010 / PG-13 / 1 hour, 45 min
Cast Overview: Kristin Scott Thomas, Melusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frederic Pierrot, Michel Duchaussoy, Dominique Frot, Gisele Casadesus, Aidan Quinn
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Genre: Drama, History, Books on Film
Languages: English, French and German with English subtitles