When French filmmaker Gilles Paquet-Brenner read Tatiana de Rosney’s best-seller, he was determined to film the Holocaust story, following the connection between a contemporary expat-American journalist in Paris and the Nazi-sympathetic Vichy Regime’s infamous July 16, 1942 Vel d’Hiv round-up and imprisonment of Jews.
Among the Vichy’s detainees is 10 year-old Sarah Starzynski, who intrigues Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott-Thomas), so their stories are interwoven. Jarmond’s connection is via her in-laws, who benefited from the Starzynski family’s deportation by acquiring the Marais apartment that her architect husband (Frederic Pierrot) is currently remodeling.
When the French police barged in, Sarah (Melusine Mayance) tried to save her four year-old brother Michel by impulsively locking him in a secret cupboard just before her family was herded, along with 13,000 others, into Velodrome d’Hiver cycling stadium, where they were trapped for three days without adequate food, water and bathrooms. After that, they were traumatically separated at the Beaune-la-Roland transit camp for eventual deportation and extermination.
Still clutching the key to the closet door and hoping to free her brother, winsome Sarah escapes, winding up on the doorstep of a sympathetic farm couple (Niels Arestrup, Dominique Frot) who take her back to Paris. The screenplay – written by Serge Joncour and Paquet-Brenner – further develops Sarah’s stoic character, taking her into adulthood with a husband (George Birt) and son (Aidan Quinn).
France refused to acknowledge this shameful complicity during the W.W.II German Occupation until, in 1995, then-president Jacques Chirac issued a public apology. And French publishers originally refused Tatiana de Rosnay’s book, but American editor Jennifer Weis brought the work to St. Martin’s publisher Sally Richardson. It eventually sold 2 ½ million copies in 40 countries and stayed on the best-seller list for 2 ½ years.
Paquet-Brenner dramatizes the children’s perspective and plight well, despite his melodramatic impulse to teach a new generation about what happened.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Sarah’s Key” is a sincere yet searing 7, unlocking another guilt-riddled tale appealing to audiences who appreciated “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist” and “The Reader.”