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June 12, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Sarah’s Key (DVD)

Published June 2011 at Arts Hub

Based on a book by Tatiana de Rosnay and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, Sarah’s Key is a poignant yet unaffected film that will haunt you for days after viewing.

Julia Jarmond (the elegant Kristin Scott Thomas) is a journalist for a flagging English-language magazine based in present-day Paris. She is commissioned to write a story on the 1942 Vel d’Hiv Roundup, in which thousands of Jewish families were herded into concentration camps at the behest of the French government. During her research, Jarmond discovers that her apartment in Paris , owned for over 60 years by Bertrand’s family, was purchased after a Jewish family named Starzynski were forcibly removed from the property on 16 July, 1942. As Jarmond’s investigation continues, she begins to obsessively track the fate of the 9-year-old Jewish girl Sarah Starzynski, who holds the key (literal and otherwise) to her family’s legacy. Sarah’s Key deftly begins to weave a beautifully  entwined dual timeline that will compel you to watch for the same reasons Jarmond is compelled to pursue history.

The young Sarah (Melusine Mayance) turns in a soul-chilling performance in her quest to escape the round-up and rescue her younger brother. Her story by itself is compelling, but the interplay between past and present cleverly raises questions about the nature of human compassion, opportunism, and the responsibility of raising children in a potential amoral world. Sarah’s Key questions the futility of life, of struggling for good and challenging the dominant social paradigm. In many ways it’s a brutal film to watch; it seems to depict both sides of the atrocity in a compassionate and honest way, but that doesn’t mean evil players come across as less evil, just less exaggerated. Sarah’s Key shows how the threat of persecution lay everywhere for the Jewish at that time; one misspoken word from an ill-bred neighbour meant life or death for an entire family.

Kristin Scott Thomas is also wonderfully poised in her role as a journalist, desperate to track down a happy ending and resolve her own internal battles. Her personal story intertwines with Sarah’s in an unexpected but vivid way. With a daughter of her own, Jarmond is trapped between her professional obligation to find truth and her desperate need to preserve the life of a little girl who suffered intense tragedy in a time of worldwide upheaval. In a way Sarah’s Key almost becomes a race to find answers, both in Sarah’s life and Jarmond’s own. The latter can’t help but blur the lines between her own life and that of her subject, and that always seems to be the point at which journalism crosses into a danger-zone level of self-involvement.

As this is a film about World War II and the Holocaust, it’s inevitable that Sarah’s Key covers the intensely depressing horror of the atrocities committed there. But director Paquet-Brenner makes a wise choice in choosing to encapsulate the awful human toll of the period in Sarah’s personal story. While it is a film deeply respectful of the tragedy of the Holocaust, it engages with history in a way that spares the viewer much of the concentration camp carnage. Sarah’s Key is a compelling watch because it chooses to focus on the timeless link between the journalist and subject, the personal and historical. By reviving one family and their experiences, Sarah’s Key effectively revives the terror of cruel and mindless persecution in a modern capacity.


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