Sarah’s Key (Elle s’appelait Sarah)
Wartime drama based on deportation of 13,000 Parisian Jews
Like the recently released The Round-Up, this respectful adaptation of Tatiana de Rosnay’s best-selling novel revisits one of the most shameful episodes of 20th-century French history, namely the Vel d’Hiv raid on July 16 1942. Some 13,000 Parisian Jews were rounded up and detained by the domestic authorities in an indoor cycling stadium, before being deported to German death camps. Fluently shifting between past and present, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner intertwines two stories relating to these events. During the raid itself a 10-year-old Jewish girl, Sarah (Mélusie Mayance), desperately tries to save her brother by locking him in a cupboard. And in today’s Paris an American magazine reporter, Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas), is shocked to discover that her French husband’s family have owned for six decades the very flat where Sarah lived.
An unsurprisingly earnest and visually restrained drama, Sarah’s Key doesn’t entirely escape the straitjacket of what one critic has labelled ‘Holocaust heritage film’. Yet whilst recreating Sara’s harrowing experiences, it also explores the psychological impact of Julia’s quest on both the journalist herself and on those through the decades who have had to conceal painful secrets. Aided by some fine ensemble performances, the filmmaker is able to imbue this story with a measure of moral ambiguity: this certainly isn’t a France of noble universal resistance to occupation. Guilt may weigh down heavily on these characters yet there is the possibility here of fresh beginnings.
GFT, Glasgow, and Filmhouse, Edinburgh, from Fri 5 Aug.