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Sarah’s Key is a story, well-told in film and book, by prize-winning French author Tatiana de Rosnay. It is a deep look into the hearts of two women, and how their lives were dramatically and tragically changed by events beyond their control. The tale opens in Paris, during World War 2, and flows into modern day. It is the story of a family that is ripped apart, and the heartbreak of a little girl and a married woman. It is a tragedy, sadly, that was not uncommon in those days. In modern times, the same events are still breaking up families and destroying hopes and dreams of a lifetime.
As the movie begins, we hear a voice saying:
“Sometimes our own stories are the ones that we can never tell. But if a story is never told, it becomes something else…forgotten.”
It is the voice of Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist, working and living in Paris, France, with her French husband and teenaged daughter. As a journalist, she begins researching a story about the deportation of Jews during the war years. In the process of her research, her own life becomes interwoven with a Sarah’s story, in a heartbreaking and eventually, a touchingly heroic way.
We first see Sarah, a little girl, playing with her brother, giggling and tickling each other, in the innocent games two little ones can play. There is a knock at the door of their Paris apartment. A French policeman enters the apartment with a Nazi officer. They are told to pack a few things, and come away. While the men are talking to Sarah’s mother, she hides her little brother in the closet, as part of a game they may have played before, locking it and taking the key with her. Sarah tells a lie to the Nazi officer, that her little brother is with her father. Then Sarah and her mother are escorted downstairs, where the Nazi officer questions the landlady about the missing little boy.
The father comes home and finds his family on the sidewalk with many others who are being rounded up. The Nazi officer gives up on finding the boy, and herds the families down the street, loading them onto trucks. They are held for days in a track-meet stadium without food, water, or bathrooms. Eventually, their names are called and they are pushed and crowded onto train cars, and deported to a holding camp. Upon arrival, the men are separated from the women and shipped to other camps deep in lands held by Nazi Germany. The women are separated from the children and also deported to Nazi concentration camps. Sarah becomes ill and falls into a delirious sleep. When she awakens, she finds herself alone in the prison camp, with a few other children who have been left behind.
Sarah is determined to return to Paris and save her little brother. The quest that Sarah embarks upon will eventually bring her to a new family, and one day to a new life in America. Her journey will take her to places that will break her heart and years later, overshadow any happiness she might find. She will begin to deny her own heritage. Years later she marries and has her own baby boy. As soon as she is able, she will rush to a church to have him christened. She will raise him as if he were an American Christian, not a Jew.
Sarah’s story becomes woven with Julia’s, as her research leads her to discover traumatic details of her own life. Her husband is remodeling his grandparent’s old-fashioned Paris apartment, one they had lived in for many years. Julia discovers that the apartment became open for her husband’s family because of the French – Nazi deportation of Jews. Dealing with this discovery, and other events beginning to develop in her life, brings great strain to her marriage and family relations. Julia is faced with hard decisions that will alter her life, causing her to find answers beyond the shores of France. Sarah fled France for a life in America after the war. Julia eventually returns to America, seeking to rebuild her life, too.
Part of the beauty of this film is that the story is told in the French language and the language of our American journalist, English. Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, Sarah’s Key was released in 2010. Paquet-Brenner and Serge Joncour co-wrote the screenplay with Tatiana de Rosnay, the author of the bestselling novel “Sarah’s Key”. The film tells historical events of the Holocaust of WWII, which we have often heard of. However, in this story, we are brought into the very day and moment little Sarah and her family are arrested. We witness Sarah with her mother and father that day, as they are stolen away from their home and ripped from each other at the prison camp. The scenery, the locations, the language, bring the viewer so close that you feel the fear and disgust of the inhumane conditions that the prisoners endure. Also, you can almost smell the sunbaked grain, as they harvest the wheat in the fields of the beautiful French countryside. In a time of a whole world at war, we see the smaller history of one apartment, one family, their lives tragically changed by what took place at that time in France. It is a blending of two cultures, two periods of time and of two lives, which will leave an impact upon the viewer’s heart. Tragedy sadly happened to many, many people during the war. We come to love Sarah, and discover what happened to her.
When Julia searched for and found the truth about Sarah, it became more than a journalist’s story in a magazine. It became part of her life, too. Julia’s voice is heard at the end of the movie saying,
“And so I write this for you, My Sarah. With the hope that one day, when you’re old enough, this story that lives with me, will live with you as well. When a story is told, it is not forgotten. It becomes something else, a memory of who we were; the hope of what we can become.”
Director(s): Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Actor(s): Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Aidan Quinn