Just days after an individual—apparently—acted viciously on his deeply held beliefs, bringing death and destruction to Oslo, Norway, filmmaker Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s chronicle of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup and its aftermath gives compelling testimony as to the ability of a uniformed force of “good guys” (If the gendarmes are executing the capture, detention and shipping out of ~13,000 Jews who do you call to bring the state-sanctioned thugs to justice?) to wantonly kill, maim and destroy due to their ideological beliefs. Only the scale of carnage is different.
“How could one of us commit such horrific acts?” asks the stunned citizenry of Norway, ever thankful that it wasn’t a Muslim that pulled the trigger so many, many times. “But surely it was just the Nazi’s who sent the Jews to the death camps,” is heard as a voice-over in Sarah’s Key, while thousands were being brutally punished for the crime of being themselves.
Conveniently, most certainly not coincidentally, the scene of the incarceration—“Winter Velodrome,” which was typically used for sporting events with fair-play rules—has vanished from Paris, ironically covered over by the Ministry of the Interior’s bureaucratic headquarters.
At the centre of the tale (based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay; Paquet-Brenner and Serge Joncour expertly crafted the ever-dramatic back-story (1942)/present-day (2009) back-and-forth scenes for the screenplay) is the Starzynski family. Eking out a meager life on the third floor of the Marais ghetto, an unrelenting knock at the door on July 16, 1942 ushers in police who order the petrified mother (Natasha Mashkevich) and her young children (precocious Sarah—Mélusine Meyance gives a stellar performance, belying her tender age—and doting younger brother Michel—Paul Mercier) to pack up a few essentials and enough food for three days: they are going on an unexpected journey. During the chaos of the kidnapping, Sarah manages to lock her sibling into their favourite hiding place: a virtually undetectable closet. She makes him promise to wait for her return and keep very, very quiet.
By the time their dad stumbles into the abduction, the cops are glad to come away with three out of four, apparently buying Sarah’s fable that her brother is in the country, trying to recover from an illness. Clutched in the quick-thinking girl’s hand is the key that will soon bring Michel out of perpetual dark and back into freedom.
Sixty-seven years later, feature writer Julia Jarmond (gritty, impassioned work from Kristin Scott Thomas) and architect-husband, Bertrand Tezac (Frédéric Pierrot) have unwittingly decided to move into the Strazynski rooms which have been in the Tezac family since August 1942 …. Not before long, the thorough journalist is following her instincts and writing a 10-page magazine exposé of the 1942 atrocities, little realizing that she and her extended family will become part of the story.
As the past begins to catch up with the present, Julia’s statement that “The truth has a price” comes to full fruition.
To further complicate the situation a wanted (Julia) unwanted (Bertrand) pregnancy comes into play much to the surprise of teenage daughter, Zoé (Karina Hin). It’s the only weak thread of an otherwise richly woven quilt of family secrets and fearless courage. (Sarah’s escape from her oppressors is strongly told and features a marvellously unlikely hero—Niels Arestrup is superb as the country curmudgeon with a heart of gold). Adding balance and some hope that not all authority figures are totally unfeeling followers of orders/dogma, the script allows a few moments of humanity to ease the passage back to Paris where, not surprisingly, even further horrors are unlocked.
Paquet-Brenner (along with cinematographer Pascal Ridao and editor Hervé Schneid who fill the screen with equal amounts of stunning beauty and unspeakable terror) delivers the film’s climax with a series of reaction shots from the horrified onlookers that paints a more gruesome picture than if the object of their revulsion was ever seen. It’s unforgettable: here’s filmmaking at its best.
From there through to the coda, much more is discovered but nothing that sears with the same degree of awful heat. Playing “adult” Sarah, Charlotte Poutrel’s beauty and oh-so-expressive visage create an aura filled with varying amounts of pain, sadness and ache that finally finds expression in an uncanny echo of a much older captive brandishing his poison-filled ring on the ride to Auschwitz vowing that “Only I can decide when it’s time for me to die.”
As usual, Max Richter’s score is at one with the action. Hearing the lyric “I found the secret door with you” even as the Julia and Bertrand dance in the room where everything began is another fine stroke of detail.
See this film and weep for us all: then and now. JWR