One summer day in July of 1942 nearly 10,000 Parisian Jews – men, women and children were removed from their homes. Many were herded into the bicycle stadium, the Velodrome d'Hiver, and the rest were sent to Drancy. Those who did not die of starvation or kill themselves in despair, ended up in Auschwitz. The July '42 Round-Up was not the work of the occupying Nazi force in France; 450 French police and gendarmes commanded by French leaders were responsible for the operation.
Novelist Tatiana de Rosnay, a native of Paris, drew on this history to form the basis for her novel, Sarah's Key, which [she says] has been faithfully adapted by director Gilles Paquet-Brenner. “The Round-Up was not something we were taught about at school in the 70s,” de Rosnay told SBS. The 'Round-Up' was a scar on French history, as all stories of French collaboration with the Nazis are taboo. Her novel was written eight years ago and took a long while to get into print. De Rosnay says that her former French publisher turned it down. She first heard of the Velo d'Hiver (as it's known colloquially) back in 1995. “When I was growing up it was not the sort of thing that was ever talked about.”
But Sarah's Key, the film and the book, is not quite the historical pageant or 'Holocaust epic' that this broad outline suggests. Instead it's a personal story with a complex but lucid plot that elegantly moves between two parallel narratives, both intimately connected, but separated by 60 years.
The modern story concerns a sophisticated middle-class ex-pat American journalist Julia (Kristen Scott-Thomas). Married to a Frenchman, as the movie begins, the couple are readying to move into a new apartment, a place it turns out, that holds a tragic secret history concerning a young girl called Sarah (Melusine Mayanne). Meanwhile Julia begins to work on a feature article commemorating the anniversary of the Velo d'Hiver and she finds her work and life are intimately intertwined.
A ten-year-old Jewish girl, Sarah lived through the Velo d'Hiver Round-up and we follow the events through her eyes. As the French police arrive at her family's apartment on the day of the Round Up, she hides her four year-old brother in a lock-up closet, believing him to be safe, and promising him that she will return. From here, Sarah is plunged into a nightmare of starvation, persecution, disease, and imprisonment. And all the while she aches to return to her little brother to save him. As the book – and film – progress, Julia becomes passionately involved in trying to discover what happened to Sarah. In a pointed bit of plot business Julia puts her life on hold, while she traces Sarah's sad history which eventually leads her to New York. Aidan Quinn in a moving cameo plays a middle-aged man whose life is changed irrevocably by Julia's work.
Unabashedly melodramatic, and deeply emotive, the novel is told in a simple, direct prose that has the feel of a lived history, in the way that suggests it might derive from an authentic journal, but says the author, the effect is pure technique. De Rosnay, herself a journalist, has spent some years now divesting fans of the misapprehension that the book is thinly disguised true history. “So many readers are disappointed when they find out that Julia is not me and that Sarah did not exist and the plot did not happen [even if the Velo d'Hiver did].”
The film's screenwriter Serge Joncour, a friend of de Rosnay's, involved her in the adaptation process from the beginning. “The book was respected and the changes were clever…” (These include aspects of Sarah's life which the author did not cover in the novel). “Kristen Scott Thomas actually put it best; she said that the book and film are like brothers, they share the same DNA but are two different people.”
Director Paquet-Brenner, told SBS that while he loved the book, the project “terrified him” – even if it did have a strong personal connection. Of Jewish background, Paquet-Brenner, still only in his mid-30s, had relatives killed in Nazi concentration camps, including a grandfather. “I knew one day I wanted to talk about my feelings on this history [on film] but I did not think I would do it so young.”
He watched Schindler's List and The Pianist, he says, and “felt intimidated”. “I did not want this to be 'another Holocaust movie', I felt that the audience might be fed up with this kind of film, this kind of subject.” He elected to use a style that is straightforward, “sober” and very simple. The WWII events are all shot close in. The Holocaust horrors are suggested; he relies on his fine actors and their reactions to create impact. But he says, its De Rosnay's narrative conceit that truly distinguishes the project from other similarly themed projects: “To me it's not really about what happened at the Velo d'Hiver, it's more about how you have to know you past to build your future.” Still, such an ambition for the story was difficult.
The book alternates its parallel storylines almost chapter-by-chapter, impossible and confusing to do in a film. “We had to find a way to keep the story fluid…so we ended up working out where we would cut between Sarah and Julia in the writing,” he says.
Like the novel, the movie is frankly emotional, in a way that's almost shocking in its directness, but the director feels that this mood is earned rather than indulgent; for Paquet-Brenner it was the point of the story. “I think it's sad nowadays when you show an emotion on screen it becomes a big deal! But I think 'no, that's wrong' – an audience has to feel something.”
For both De Rosnay and Paquet-Brenner Sarah's Key is sad but hopeful, in so many ways. It does not condemn the French collaborators of the war years, but identifies with their fear in a way that is compassionate and remorseful. Sarah's Key is one of two recent films concerned with the Jewish experience in France in WWII; the other is The Round-Up, both have met with success in France. “Now everyone knows about the Velo d'Hiver,” he says. Still, the wound of history runs deep and French pop culture has taken its time in embracing this terrible story; it's been 15 years since President Jacques Chirac acknowledged the role of the French in the Nazis' final solution and apologised to the victims of the Round-Up.