Gilles Pacquet-Brenner, France, 2010, 111 mins, 2.35:1
Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frédéric Pierrot, Michel Duchaussoy, Dominique Frot, Natasha Mashkevich, Gisèle Casadesus, Aidan Quinn
UK Theatrical Release: 5 August 2011, Optimum Releasing
Review by Noel Megahey
Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée des ombres, Alain Resnais’ Of Night and Fog and Claude Lanzman’s nine and a half-hour Shoah have made a significant mark and all stand as important films on the subject of French resistance and issues relating to the Holocaust. It’s only in the last decade or so however that French cinema has started to deal with – if still not entirely come to terms with – other issues related to the Nazi occupation and the collaboration of the French authorities in atrocities committed during this time that until very recently have been kept hidden or just not spoken about.
Bertrand Tavernier’s Laissez-passer interestingly considered the nature of both active and passive resistance within the field of cinema itself; Robert Guédiguian brought to light the important input to the resistance by the French immigrant population in The Army of Crime; Rachid Bouchareb’s Days of Glory (Indigènes) showed the contribution of North African battalions fighting on the front in Europe, as well as highlighting the injustice of their sacrifice not being recognised by the French government; and Christian Faure’s A Love To Hide showed how many homosexuals in France were informed upon by neighbours and subjected to the same prejudice and deportation to camps as the Jewish population.
It’s inevitably the Jewish question however that has shown up the most cowardly and shameful aspects of the French authorities and the ordinary citizens of France, acting out of fear or just petty jealousies in relation to informing on the Jewish population of France and actively collaborating in the rounding-up and deportation of Jewish families to Nazi death camps. Different aspects of the subject have been treated in A Secret, in One Day You’ll Understand (Plus tard tu comprendras), and most recently now in Gilles Pacquet-Brenner’s Sarah’s Key (Elle s’appelait Sarah).
Although developed into a fictional story, based on a bestselling novel by Tatiana De Rosnay, Sarah’s Key deals very much with a real-life incident in July 1942 where the 13,000 Jewish population of Paris were rounded-up by the French police – not by the German authorities – and held at the Vél’ d’Hiv, the Vélodrome d’Hiver cycle track stadium, before being deported to concentration camps in Germany and Poland, including Auschwitz. The story of one young child, Sarah, is investigated by an American journalist (Kristin Scott Thomas) who is writing an article on the subject, when she finds that the unknown fate of Sarah lies uncomfortably close to home.
Sarah’s Key, like A Secret and One Day You’ll Understand, uses a narrative framing device of looking back on the past events from the present day. This is a reasonable means of contrasting and comparing the past with the present, as well as showing that the Holocaust is more than a historical event and that it has relevance and an impact on how we live today. That’s the case to some extent in Sarah’s Key, but there’s unfortunately a sense of imbalance in the amount of time given over in the film to the personal problems of Kristin Scott Thomas’ journalist, when the events that really make the most impact are those relating to the young Sarah and the round-up. In its depiction of that historical incident however, Sarah’s Key is most effective and succeeds in raising those questions about how this could ever have happened, questions we need to understand in order to prevent it ever happening again.
A fuller review of Sarah’s Key can be found on The Digital Fix.