I never tire of films about World War II, especially when they’re as good and emotionally affecting as “Sarah’s Key,” a French drama starring English actress Kristen Scott Thomas.
Perhaps younger generations see movies like this — which still turn up quite often every year in local cinemas, even seven decades after the war’s end — and think, “Not again.” Perhaps even those old enough to have lived through those dark times grow tired of seeing them portrayed from yet another light. But I think, and hope, not.
The Second World War was the most pivotal event in the history of mankind, bar none. Conquerors like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan rode momentary tides of power that left the landscape and people much as they had been.
World War II created and destroyed countries, shifted the balance of world power across the Atlantic Ocean and ushered in a technological age wherein humans harnessed the power to totally and permanently annihilate each other.
And, if one man had had his way — abetted by millions who agreed or went along out of fear — an entire race of people would have been exterminated.
The saga of the Jewish journey gets a new twist in “Sarah’s Key,” which uses the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup as a prism for a historical story set in the past and present. The roundup is a stain on the proud legacy of Occupied France, in which nearly 14,000 French Jews were arrested and taken to a bicycle stadium where conditions made the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina look like a weekend resort.
The execrable event was ordered by the Nazis but carried out by French authorities. Many of those arrested were eventually sent to concentration camps for extermination.
Scott Thomas plays Julia Jarmond, an American journalist who’s been living in France for a quarter-century. She’s researching the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup for a magazine story and stumbles across a very personal connection to the tragedy. At first afraid to confront the truth, she soon becomes obsessed with nailing it down.
Her search becomes a quest to learn the fate of Sarah Starzynski, a young girl whose family was among those arrested. Thinking she was saving her little brother’s life, Sarah tucked him inside a hidden closet in their apartment when the police came knocking — locking him in with her key and promising to return.
Of course, they were not allowed to return for days, which soon turned into weeks, leaving little doubt about the young Starzynski lad’s fate. But this becomes Sarah’s own quest, guarding the ornamental key through many adversities, to learn the truth for herself.
This mirrors Julia’s own journey of discovery, which she senses must end in disappointment — both personally and professionally — and yet she cannot let go of the chimera’s tail she has grasped.
Scott Thomas is her usual solid self, with her beautiful, wan face a canvas of colliding emotions and thoughts. Her French is — to my untrained ear — superlative, though her (supposedly) Brooklyn accent is, shall we say, more aspirational than operational.
Mélusine Mayance is a revelation as young Sarah, who finds the resolve to carry on even when separated from her parents or even any real hope for her family’s survival. I also very much enjoyed the performance by Niels Arestrup as a farmer who finds a bedraggled Sarah at his doorstep and makes a choice that changes both their lives in ways neither could have imagined.
“Sarah’s Key” was directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who co-wrote the screenplay with Serge Joncour based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay. They keep the mood and tone of the film in a perfect balance between the joy of discovery in letting the narrative unspool and the tragic nature of what is to be found.
The reason WWII remains such a fertile source of movies, both based on fact and fiction, is that there are millions of stories like Sarah’s waiting, needing to be told.