Sarah’s Key is a heartbreaking film. Like the Tatiana de Rosnay novel on which it is based—a fictionalized account of the real-life 1942 round-up of 13,000 Jewish families by the French police—the film adaptation weaves a jarringly beautiful tale of tragedy and time that remains with viewers long after they’ve left the theater.
Released this week, the film comes out 69 years, nearly to the day, after the Jews of Paris were rounded up and sent to the Velodrome d’Hiver, a former cycling arena, from which they would be transported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Novel and film alike revolve around the stories of two women. The first is the young Sarah Starzynski, a 9-year-old Jewish girl who locks her brother in a secret closet as French police remove the family from their Marais apartment. The other is Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris who, 60 years later, prepares to move into a newly renovated apartment owned by her French husband’s family. As Julia explores the Vel d’Hiv roundup as part of a work assignment, she realizes the notorious event’s legacy hits, quite literally, closer to home than she had ever imagined: The apartment in which she lives used to be Sarah’s. Fixated on her new home’s former tenants, Julia traces Sarah’s life journey, which eventually took her from France to America. With each secret Julia uncovers, another layer of a complex and devastating tragedy is revealed.
The film’s dark storyline is brought to life by the vivid images and moving scenes that transport the viewer from the velodrome, filthy and unsanitary and crowded, across France, and, finally to Brooklyn, where Sarah, having survived the Holocaust, ends up. Watching Julia trying to piece together the mystery of Sarah’s life, one can be excused for getting a bit frustrated. Even though the film takes place in 2002, there seems to be no Google in site—one or two quick consultations with the omnipresent search engine would have saved Julia, played by the majestic Kristin Scott Thomas, a few schleps around the world. But there is an additional—and emotional—layer to the film, that makes such unlikelihoods seem trivial, a layer that invites the viewers to shatter their own ignorance about the relatively obscure horrors of the Vel d’Hiv.
When her novel was published, in 2007, de Rosnay spoke to Tablet Magazine’s previous incarnation, Nextbook.org, about the shock of discovering the story of the deportation. “I said to myself: ‘I have to write about this, but how?’ ” she said. “I’m not a historian, I’m not Jewish, I don’t have any legitimate reason to write about this except that I’m French, and that I’m appalled.” This precise sentiment—the horror at discovering the depth of atrocities that are recent yet largely unmentioned—is what drives Julia, her modern protagonist, to seek more information about Jews that were rounded up. The shattering of innocence generates much of the film’s tension: What do you do once you learn of the monstrosity?
De Rosnay first heard of the Vel d’Hiv in 1995, when France’s then-president, Jacques Chirac, acknowledged his nation’s complicit accountability in the wartime fate of French Jews: Her response was to create a palatable-yet-horrific story of a child forced to confront adult truths. As with any cinematic adaptation, elements of the novel have been changed for the big screen. Most notably, while in the novel Julia had never heard of Vel d’Hiv before being assigned to report on the 60th anniversary of the roundup, in the film she lectures two young and oblivious journalists about this forgotten bit of history. It’s a significant shift: The movie is aimed mostly at young viewers, and Julia’s speech seems to deliver the poignant message that age does not preclude one from responsibility.
The film’s other protagonist, Sarah, learns this lesson all too harshly. When she decides to hide her brother in a closet, she is forced to make an adult choice, the consequences of which she is far too young to grasp. Her parents berate her for her foolishness, but as she is subjected to the terrors of her reality, it is soon she, and not the adults, who is equipped with what it takes to survive in a transformed world. Sarah has set into motion a course of events that will transform her life and the lives of so many around her, and though she is young, she ultimately controls the narrative. All who encounter the fiercely driven child are transfixed by her prescient understanding of the world.
Though 60 years removed from Sarah’s childhood horrors, the adult Julia, in her role as a journalist, is able to enter the girl’s warped world. But what had been for Sarah a personal drama, becomes for Julia a momentous historical event. Which, de Rosnay admitted, may be too much for some audiences to take. “I never thought it would be published,” de Rosnay said upon the publication of her novel. “I’m not sugarcoating the story. I’m shining this lucid spotlight onto what happened, how the people of Paris closed their eyes. Of course there were people who helped, there were children who got away because they were saved, but the truth is not very pretty to look at from the French side.”
And so many just don’t look. Surprisingly for such a frequently explored, if colossal, subject—the Holocaust—the Vel d’Hiv roundups remain largely unheralded. For young viewers in particular, then, Sarah’s Key is an important account of French Jewry’s recent history. Even as it veers toward more fantastical and implausible plotlines, it is the kind of film that first makes a viewer extremely uncomfortable, and then makes them start thinking. After all, it was a child who best understood how to navigate this dark world.