One of the first posts I wrote on this blog was about the book, Sarah’s Key by Tatania de Rosnay. I described it as “a very sad, haunting book, whose images and impressions will linger with you long after you’ve set the book down. De Rosnay is a brilliant story teller, and she certainly had an important story to tell.” There was so much about the book that I appreciated, particularly that De Rosnay was able to bring an important story to the mainstream public. Even I had never heard of the Vélodrome d’Hiver round-up, when thousands of Jews were rounded up and taken into a stadium for days with no water, toilets or food and then to a transit camp where they were housed being deported to the German death camps. What is so shocking about this story is that they were rounded up by the French police, not the Nazis.
The story is explored by weaving a story of the past about a little girl whose family was part of this round-up into the present. Sarah was a French Jewish girl who lived in Paris during the Holocaust, and when she and her family were taken away, she hid her brother in a locked cupboard, hoping to save him, and making him promise not to try to escape. It becomes immediately clear that she is not able to return for some time, and she lives in fear, thinking of him constantly, clutching the key in the palm of her hand whenever possible. Later, after she escapes the camp and returns to the apartment, she finds her brother dead.
Julia is a journalist in Paris who is researching the events for a story in the magazine that she works for, and while exploring these atrocious actstaken by the French, learns that the apartment that Sarah and her family were forced out of is the one she about to move into, hence their stories intertwine.
The book moved me to no end. I couldn’t put it down. It had me in tears on nearly every page. As an adult who still suffers with what happened during the Holocaust, I could completely relate to Julia and her own personal agony and obsession in finding out what happened to Sarah.
When I found out that a film was being made based on the book, my curiosity was heightened. How would the story translate to the screen? Would it work as a film?
For the most part, I’d say “absolutely”. I was engrossed from the film’s start. Director Gilles Pacquet-Brenner makes each part of the story interesting and relevant to each other. I remember when my book club discussed the book, many of the members said they had trouble with the modern context of the story, while I quite related to how the character’s life was being impacted by this horrific part of history. The narrative about the past is so heart-breaking that when each part of the story fades out to bring in the modern story, it is almost a relief. I had to catch my breath and move on, until the film went back in time again. There was a lot of attention to detail in the making of this film – sensitivity to the plot line, casting, costumes, and cinematography – and they achieve an effective result. The scenes in the stadium and concentration camp are riveting and very upsetting. When Sarah escapes the camp with a friend, they find salvation in the arms of a French couple. Her friend does not survive, but Sarah lives with them her whole young life. The scenes between Sarah and her new parents, not by either choice, are important. At one point, they shield her from the Nazis and it is clear that she is about to be raised by a loving family.
The actual issue of the round up and ignorance of the French weren’t explored as deeply as they could have been, and though I understood what the film was trying to do, I did not cry as much as I could have. In the book, every which way Julia turns, she is met with disdain from the French when she is researching what happened to the Jews in Paris during World War II. In the film, she isn’t met with any resistance.
Julia gets pregnant in both the book and movie, and her French husband has a hard time accepting parenthood at such a late stage of life. In the book, he is actually having an affair with a woman and the storyline is pertinent to why his relationship with Julia is falling apart. It also gives her even more determination to keep the baby and pursue what is important to her, in terms of finding out the truth behind his family’s involvement with forcing the Jews out during the war. The film does not address this point, but we do see their marriage unraveling. Perhaps this information would have given their falling out more meaning.
Also, in the book and the film, Julia and Sarah seem to be developing a relationship near the end of the book, and this seemed to make the story more Hollywood than it needed to be. Perhaps this could have been mitigated in the movie.
As for acting, Kristin Scott Thomas plays Julia, who goes back and forth from English to French with ease. She is so skilled as an actress, and gets better with every film. She is quite believable as a woman coming to terms with the past and present, and I can not imagine anyone else playing Julia.
The two French actresses that play Sarah are really good: Melusine Mayance and Charlotte Poutrel. Ms. Mayance plays the younger Sarah and handles every scene with poise. The pain and agony of discovering her brother in the closet are so extreme and her scream is so piercing, that when we met the elder Sarah, played by Poutrel, there is no wonder that she, too, is haunted forever. She barely speaks, but we understand why she feels the way she does and why her life is haunted by so many ghosts. We do find out what happens to Sarah, with the help of Julia’s clever journalistic abilities, and it is not a Hollywood ending.
One of my favorite actors makes a brief, but important, appearance. That’s Aidan Quinn, who plays Sarah’s son. At age 49, he has never heard about his mother’s past as a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, until he meets Julia. His performance is spot on, as usual, and his face brilliantly conveys his hurt of never really knowing his own mother whose fate was dictated by her horrible experience during World War II.
However, overall, I think the film set out what it needed to do: express the pain and unravel an often neglected part of French history that the world needs to be aware of. The director, who is friends with the author, clearly cared enough about the story as much as she, herself, to bring to the world with grace and dignity. After over 60 years, we must never forget nor let the world forget, and this film puts us one more step in that direction of preserving the memory of the 6 million Jews who were murdered savagely during the Holocaust.