Despite its motto of "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite" motto, French attitude toward Jews in the 19th and much of the 20th century put them strictly in the back of the bus. The Dreyfus Affair, in the 1890s, was a low spot, but some of the World War II collaborations with the Nazis might have been even more reprehensible.
French filmmaker Gilles Paquet-Brenner, working from a novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, opens an old, frightening bag of memory in "Sarah's Key," a story triggered by a French roundup of Parisian Jews on July 16, 1942. Some 13,000 men, women and children were crowded into the Vel d'Hiv stadium, an aging bicycle racing oval in Paris. Those who survived the inhumane conditions were taken to German concentration or work camps. Sarah Starzynski (a fascinating, powerful Melusine Mayance) was 10 when the police arrived at the family's apartment in the Marais neighborhood, where many Jews lived.
In a desperate effort to save her younger brother, she locks him in a cupboard, first making him promise he will wait for her. Sarah and her parents go off with the Germans, are separated and, with the help of a kindly French policeman, she escapes.
Paquet-Brenner, who has made a superior film, does tend to jump around in time and space, and since he is working from a novel, fictional coincidences are necessary to help the story. So we meet Julia, nicely played by Kristin Scott Thomas. She's a writer, just moved to Paris with her architect husband, Bertrand Tezac (Frederic Pierrot) and, of course, they have taken an apartment in the Marais that used to belong to his family. Julia then begins a search for Sarah, who would be in her 90s, or for her descendants. She sees a book contract.
Bertrand sees his marriage crumbling.
As Julia digs, we also meet the post-war Sarah, a luminous, almost-spectral vision played by Charlotte Poutrel. Interestingly, while she is vital to the tale, she does not have any lines, another tactic by Paquet-Brenner to keep drama and interest high. The characters created by De Rosnay are fascinating, especially Bertrand's father, Edouard, played with depth and brilliance by Michel Duchaussoy, as he finally unlocks the story of Sarah.
Indeed, as Sarah carries the key to the cupboard, Edouard carries the key to Sarah.
"Sarah's Key" is a rich, many textured tale, and Paquet-Brenner has brought a rich and special touch to De Rosnay's writing.
Sarah's Key opens today.