In the opening sequence of “Sarah’s Key,” 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) tickles her younger brother as the family cat grooms itself in the sunshine. The sweet domestic scene is shattered when a thunderous knocking signals the arrival of the French police. It is the morning of July 16, 1942, and the authorities are rounding up some 13,000 Jews for internment in the Vélodrome d’Hiver before deportation to transit camps, then Auschwitz.
In the film — based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s best-selling novel — Sarah tries to save her 4-year-old brother, Michel, by locking him inside a bedroom cupboard, their secret hiding place, promising to return before being herded off to the velodrome. Her desperate attempts to return cut back and forth in time with the modern-day story of Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist living in Paris who, while researching the little-known history of the deportation of French Jews, stumbles upon a searing discovery: The family apartment she is about to move into was once the Starzynskis’ home. As Jarmond becomes obsessed with Sarah’s heartbreaking story, she tackles complex issues of how to live with the past while also moving forward into an uncertain future.
“You must be careful when attempting another Holocaust movie because you don’t want people to become fatigued by the subject,” the film’s 36-year-old director, Gilles Paquet-Brenner (“Pretty Things”), said from his Paris home. “But I felt ‘Sarah’s Key’ is unique, because it explains how the past continues to affect the present. You have the character of Julia, who is not Jewish and not even French, who realizes she has a strong connection to what happened in the Holocaust. And that is important to show, especially to younger audiences. Even if they feel these events are far removed, they can literally be next door.”
The novel and the film, along with the 2010 movie “La Rafle” (“The Roundup”), are fictionalized stories spotlighting the previously taboo subject of the roundup and the collaboration of French citizens in the Shoah.
But when de Rosnay first learned of the so-called Vel d’Hiv, she said, she “did not know the role of the French police, nor how many children had been arrested.” When she was in high school in Paris in the 1970s, that history was not taught.
The first time she visited the site of the velodrome — which was torn down in 1959 and now houses an annex of the Ministry of the Interior — was a decade ago, while researching her 2003 book, “Walls Remember,” exploring how buildings and streets can harbor dark secrets. “As I stood in the Rue de Nelaton, one of the saddest streets I have ever visited, I could feel the suffering coming back,” she said.
De Rosnay was disgusted and angered by how hard she had to search for the tiny plaque commemorating the Vel d’Hiv events. Those feelings fueled “Sarah’s Key,” which, she said, was excruciating to write and has left a kind of psychic scar. “Sarah’s personal quest and tragedy is symbolized in her key, which is the ‘key’ to her terrible secret [about] Michel,” the author said. “And Michel, in his cupboard left to die, is the horror of these little ones sent alone to their deaths and the silence that they have been wrapped up in so long.”
Paquet-Brenner chose not to reveal in the film exactly what occurred in the cupboard. But he can understand his heroines’ feelings of survivor’s guilt.
His own paternal grandfather, a German-Jewish musician living in France’s free zone, was deported upon the Vichy takeover and died in the Majdanek concentration camp. “I know what it is to be brought up in a family where you have the ghost of someone who has disappeared,” he said.
He was wary of taking a too-sentimental approach to the subject, which could make viewers feel manipulated and angry: “So I tried to stay realistic and raw,” he said. “It was handheld cameras, with short lenses, right in the middle of the action. And we worked hard on the sound, because the sound was intensive in the velodrome. Survivors told me about the noise, the lights, the smells, which I tried to convey on screen.”
Oscar nominee Kristin Scott Thomas (“The English Patient,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) also had personal connections to the story. After moving from London to Paris at 18, she married into a Jewish family whose older generation consisted primarily of Holocaust survivors. “They had been in hiding, in camps, some even caused a rebellion in Treblinka,” she said from her home in France. And her mother-in-law had been active in the organization that had placed commemorative plaques around Paris. “When we would all have lunch on a Sunday, all their experiences would be taken out and aired, and there would be a jousting of terrible stories, but at the same time a keen sense of the preciousness of life,” she said.
It was an outlook that profoundly affected Scott Thomas, who had suffered from depression as a result of losing her father, and then her stepfather, both in plane crashes, when she was 5 and 10, respectively. She chose to make “Sarah’s Key” “as a way for me to participate in the recounting of these stories as a non-Jewish person,” she said. “I’m not saying you can’t fictionalize them, but personally I would have had issues pretending I was one of those mothers brutally separated from their children [in the transit camps], when I am just an actress.”
Yet Scott Thomas’ pain is real during the scene in which her character sees photographs of those vulnerable children at a Holocaust museum in Paris; in real life, it was the actress’ first visit to the museum.
It was while preparing to shoot this sequence that Paquet-Brenner’s usually reticent mother disclosed a story about her late father: The elder Brenner reportedly committed suicide in Majdanek, using some poison he had hidden in his ring. The director subsequently added a scene to the movie in which a Jewish musician defiantly brandishes a ring filled with poison, declaring that only he will choose the time of his death.
“At the Holocaust museum, my mother also found her father’s name on the wall, which was like the closing of a book,” Paquet-Brenner said. “It was as if she could finally face her past.
And while the production of the movie was painful for her, it was also a healing process. It’s exactly what Scott Thomas’ character says in the movie: ‘The truth hurts, but you need it.’ ”
Also as a result of the film, Paquet-Brenner has discovered that he has relatives in Israel; he plans on tracking them down when his 16-month-old daughter, Sunnila, is older. She was born the day the film wrapped. And her middle name is … Sarah.
The film opens on July 22 in Los Angeles.