Sarah’s Keys

The Holocaust, what the French call “La Shoah,” has never ceased to be fascinating; the idea that one government could systematically decimate an entire people with impunity is extraordinary.

Although no one in my family was affected by the Holocaust, it’s one of those things that has forever lived in me, as if it were a part of my genetic make-up.

Cinema, when it posits directly or indirectly on the Holocaust, can sometimes provide a new perspective on the subject by way of fresh testimony and original storytelling. Feature films that are jarring and compelling at the same time help us remember the unforgettable (recent films on the subject have included, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Reader, and The Pianist).

French filmmaker Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film Sarah’s Keys, due out for release this month, was adapted from the namesake novel by author Tatiana De Rosnay (Saint Martins Press) and is one of the most compelling films I’ve seen this year. It focuses on a specific event in France’s history, namely, the Vel D’hiv roundup, which occurred in Paris almost sixty-nine years ago to this day (July 16 and 17, 1942).

Kristin Scott-Thomas plays a journalist by the name of Julia Jarmond. During the writing of an article about the roundup she becomes consumed with the story of a young girl caught in the French police sweep. Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) is arrested and was supposed to have been shipped off along with her family to Auschwitz and thousands of other French Jews. But something’s amiss. The girl and her brother do not appear on the concentration camp’s lists. Jarmond decides to investigate their fate.

Like most Holocaust movies Sarah’s Keys is unsettling. It trains the spotlight on a dark time in France’s history, one during which the French collaborated with the Nazis and fingered a lot of the French Jews who were eventually sent to camps. At the same time, Jean Moulin and the folks from La Résistance as well as countless ordinary citizens, countered this with extraordinary acts of heroism, saving thousands of Jews from extermination.

Go see this movie—it’s a must. Through the alternating two stories–the young girl and her brother’s disappearance and modern-day Jarmond tracking down the children of survivors–Paquet-Brenner has crafted an unhurried, supremely tasteful, and absorbing portrait of two people, Jarmond and Starzynski, whose lives become improbably linked (see trailer).

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