Special to The History Place
Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a girl from Brooklyn married to a guy from France. They have a daughter and they have their successful careers – she a journalist, he a businessman. They live in Paris, where the husband’s family has given them the apartment they’ve owned since 1942. Husband Bertrand Tezac (Frederic Pierrot) has big plans for fixing up the place. This will be the threesome’s happily-ever-after home. And then, as is so often the case, things change dramatically in what seems like little more than a few heartbeats.
Julia tackles an article about the Paris Jews, who were arrested and deported to the concentration camps by their fellow Frenchmen in 1942. No sooner has she begun her research than she discovers that she’s pregnant. These two events – the assignment and the pregnancy – reveal things about her husband and his family that will change all their lives forever.
The magazine piece leads to the discovery that their apartment was occupied by a Jewish family, all of whom apparently were caught up in the ’42 pogrom. Indeed, it’s doubtful the Tezac family would have fallen into such fine quarters in the midst of WWII had the cleansing of the Department not occurred.
As for the impending birth, of which after 12 years of trying and failing both spouses had despaired, Julia’s surprise announcement leaves Bertrand despondent. He wants her to abort. He likes life as is. She considers the occurrence a miracle and wants to carry the child to term. As if this is not enough conflict for one family, Julia learns from Bertrand’s papa that granddad knew all along how he lucked into his new pad.
All of this is happening in 2009.
Meanwhile, back in ’42, Sarah Starzynski, aged ten or so, and her family are experiencing human tragedy on a quantumly grander scale. As Julia delves into the records and interviews those old enough to have been there, we the audience are swept backward, through flashbacks, which alternate with the 21st century saga.
In the very first such retrospective, Sarah and her little brother are roused from their shared bed by a battering at the apartment door. The French gendarmes are there to take the family away. Sarah impulsively hides her little brother in a discretely wallpapered closet, elicits a promise of silence from him, locks the door and hides the key. This is the key she guards with her life, a life she risks to get back in time to rescue him. Sarah’s key travels down the decades and the generations, one artifact among many linking past to present.
If such a thing is possible, given the horrific nature of the Holocaust, one might fear that a story such as this could drift into cliché or melodrama. Be assured that this is not the case. No matter how many Holocaust films you’ve digested, this one will touch your jaded heart. Predictably, there is ample horror, and, yes, some dewy-eyed hope as well. Superb acting across the entire cast does a lot to lift Sarah’s Key above the morass of cliché.
The directing, as well as the excellent acting, is restrained. People who have read the novel on which the film is based have told me that the book tends to the melodramatic. Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner deftly and consistently pulls his little masterpiece back from that precipice every time it ventures a bit too close.
And, of course, the irony of French police executing the genocide, while French citizens jeer hapless Jews from upper-floor windows, is a chilly warning that no nationality or race is above such crimes, circumstances being fertile. I couldn’t see these French policemen without thinking of another film, actually shot in 1942 – Casablanca.
Captain Louis Renault (Claude Raines) is deliciously corrupt: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.” “Your winnings, sir.” “Oh, thank you very much.”
In the final shot of what many consider the best movie ever, Louie announces he’s leaving with Rick to join a Free French garrison. “Louie,” says Bogie, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
The Nazi collaborators in Sarah’s Key may look and sound like Captain Renault, but there is nothing much likeable about them. Except for one named Jacques – but to find out why, you’ll have to take the trouble – well worth it, I promise – to track down and see this beautiful, poignant film.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including disturbing situations involving the Holocaust.
Jim Castagnera, a freelance journalist and practicing attorney, is the author of 18 books, including Al Qaeda Goes to College (Praeger 2009) and Ned McAdoo and the Molly Maguires (Amazon 2011).