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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The subject is crimes against Jews in 1942, but not the usual Nazi
operations. Sympathizing with Germany, the French themselves in July of
that year rounded up their own citizens, and most of them were
eventually sent to concentration camps and were killed.
This story focuses on one family, as they are being forced out of their Paris apartment the young daughter, Sarah, locks her younger brother into a semi-hidden closet and tells him she will be back for him. She keeps the key, thus the title "Sarah's Key." The rest of the movie switches back and forth between 1940s and the 2000s. Kristen Scott Thomas is Julia, a modern day journalist and her publication is doing a story on that 1942 event.
This is a work of fiction, based on a book, but the story is plausible and shows a different angle on the persecution and unjust murder of thousands of Jews. A worthwhile movie.
SPOILERS: Young Sarah's parents are shipped out and she finds herself in a camp with only children and guards. She wants to get out, go back to their home, and free her little brother. When she eventually gets there the boy has died , locked in the closet for weeks. Sarah gets adopted by a rural family, and as Julia researches the incident tries to track down Sarah. As it turned out she grew up and went to America and settled in Brooklyn, had a son who now lives in Italy. Sarah did not survive, she died in a car accident that might actually have been suicide, still despondent from not being able to save her little brother. But Julia ands up meeting with Sarah's son and filling him in on the part of her life he never knew about.
This is an overwhelmingly emotional and devastating experience, brilliantly filmed by French director Gilles Paquet-Brenner. This film is largely in French but has sections which are in English. It is based on a novel written in English by the prominent French novelist Tatiana de Rosnay. (Tatiana's mother is English and is named Stella. Stella's sister is named Vanessa. They were named Stella and Vanessa by their parents after the two women in Jonathan Swift's life. I mention that fascinating item of trivia because no one else will ever tell you. Of course, 'Stella' was really Hester Johnson and 'Vanessa' was really Esther van Homrigh, but I don't wish to be too confusing by exploring this any further, or why Lady Gladwyn felt so strongly about it.) This is surely one of the most powerful French films since Radu Mihaileanus's LIVE AND BECOME (2005, see my review alphabetically listed not under 'L' but under 'V' for VA, VIS ET DEVIENS). This film starts in 1942 in the Rue de Saintonge in the Marais, that wonderful, deeply atmospheric and ancient area of Paris which before the War had been the Jewish quarter, and to which many Jews have now returned, so that you can now eat at Goldenberg's for instance and taste the different foods of every Eastern European country. (And across the street from Goldenberg's is one of the finest bakeries in Paris, for those of gastronomic inclinations of the patisserie kind. Try the cheesecake and you will never be satisfied with any other.) Here on a certain day a little girl named Sarah and her younger brother are laughing and giggling and playing together, when suddenly a knock comes at the door. Their mother is in a state of terror. What is going on? It is not the Germans but the French. Yes, the French of the hateful and evil Vichy regime. Finally the French of today are facing the truth about the French of yesterday and making films which expose what really happened in 1942. All the Jews are being rounded up and sent to French camps by French police who are all too willing to do the dirty work of the Nazis for them, and grab tens of thousands of innocent French citizens and send them to the death camps. The concierge is seen to be not all that worried by the events, and a French woman leans out of a high window over the courtyard and says: 'They are only getting what they deserve.' So these days when we see Sarkozy dancing and prancing round die Kaiserin, Angela Merkel, on television, smirking at her, embracing her, and assisting her in everything she might conceivably wish for the benefit of the Fourth Reich as it takes shape with its new southern colonies of German Greece and German Italy, we get nervous when we remember 1942 and what this film goes on to portray. Sarah hides her little brother in a closet and locks him in, taking the key with her. She wishes to save him. But alas, she and her parents are swept away into armed custody in the shameful Paris Velodrome, where thousands of Jews slept on the benches without any sanitation or water as they awaited deportation. Then they are sent to a terrible French concentration camp with barbed wire. Meanwhile Sarah is in increasing states of hysteria because she has to escape and get back to Paris to unlock the closet and let her little brother out. She refuses to face the fact that he cannot possibly still be alive, after all those days and weeks. She does get under the wire and is taken in, at risk to their lives, by a peasant family. And this is just the beginning of this harrowing, devastating tale of tragedy and loss. Parallel with these events of the past we have a modern story, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, the bilingual actress who can speak both languages with equal fluency. She is such a magnificent actress and, now that she is no longer a youngster, has so much gravitas, that she manages to make the modern story of the couple who move into the same flat in the Rue de Saintonge as moving and effective as the earlier story. She sets about difficult and painstaking detective work, trying to find out the true story of the flat, and becomes obsessed by finding Sarah, who may still be alive, since the records show that she never reached any death camp and vanished back into France under another name. We thus have an overwhelmingly tragic emotional tale, which is historically accurate, merged with a contemporary quest and tale of detection. This has all the ingredients for a major cinematic event, and it certainly delivers. The tales as they both simultaneously evolve and converge are as heart-breaking and weepie as you can get. Even people with stone hearts will be unable to see this film without becoming tearful, except for the fanatical anti-Semites, of course, as they would like to do it all again. And unfortunately, they are 'still out there', even though the French police no longer do their murderous deeds for them. The fact that the French are facing these unpleasant truths and dropping their nonsensical insistence that all their forebears were active in the Resistance (in which case Hitler would have been defeated much earlier!), proves that at last they are purging themselves of their blood-guilt, a process which has to commence by the accepting of truths and shedding of delusions. This profoundly upsetting film is a major step back towards the regaining of mental health and self-respect by a nation which betrayed its own deepest principles and found itself morally lacking when challenged in the 1940s by the menace of organised evil, to which it grovelled in the dust and whose jackboots it licked so eagerly that the shoe polish came off in all those fawning Gallic mouths.
*** SPOILER WARNING ***
Sarah's Key is a movie told in two parts that cut back and forth in time, but never really convincingly fits the parts together. One is a deeply emotional story of a 10 year-old French girl named Sarah who survives the holocaust with courage and fast thinking. The other takes place in the present and tells the dull and uninteresting story of a journalist (Kristen Scott-Thomas) who is investigating Sarah's story for a magazine article. Sadly, it is the uninteresting part that dominates and eventually takes over the film's third act.
The good part should have been the whole movie, it takes place in 1942 and centers on Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) who, as the movie opens, becomes part of the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup, in which French police in Nazi-occupied Paris rounded up more than 13,000 non-Jewish citizens who were shipped off to concentration camps in Germany and Poland. On that day, Sarah denies her captors one victim, her little brother Michel, whom she hides in a secret closet in their flat before her family is arrested the key with which she locks the door stays in her possession.
Sarah and her parents are sent to to Beaune-la-Rolande, a transit camp where her major focus becomes getting back to Paris to free her brother. That involves an incredible journey that takes across the French countryside where she is adopted and cared for by a loving couple who become her surrogate parents. Sad to say, that story occupies the film's first half hour. It is so heartbreaking and so compelling that I kept wishing that the whole movie had just focused on her story. The greatest achievement of the film is the performance by young Mélusine Mayance as Sarah, who is a natural actor with bright eyes and an expressive face. She's a very natural actor.
The uninteresting part dominates the picture, it involves a modern-day journalist named Julia (Kristin Scott-Thomas) who begins investigating the Vel' d'Hiv roundup and wants to do a story for her magazine. Very little actual physical evidence exists about the roundup and by a bizarre coincidence (too bizarre if you ask me), she and her husband just happen to be renovating the very Paris flat that Sarah and her family occupied. There is no real connection between Julia, Sarah and the flat and so we are left to wonder what the point of the modern day story was.
She begins investigating Sarah's story and uncovers much about her history. As she digs deeper the details become spotty and we are less and less privy to the actual details of what happened to her. The story begins strongly telling us the details of Sarah's experience but then pulls away just as our emotional investment is at its peak. The last half hour of the film rides on a very muddy track as Julia uncovers a relative of Sarah's (Aiden Quinn) but by then we are so far into the story that a new character means basically nothing. And no points for guessing what she names the baby.
What we are left with is a lot of disconnected material about Julia's life. Based on Sarah's experience, do we really care about Julia's pregnancy? Do we care that her husband isn't too crazy about it? Do we care about the story she's writing? No, because the holocaust story was so emotional and so compelling that we feel that the modern story is an intrusion. What does one really have to do with the other? ** (of four)
I write this review after listening to the audio book, watching the
movie, and scanning through recent reviews.
The book is so much better. While a dozen of the latest IMDb reviews accurately capture the plot and acting in the film, few emphasize the novel. Just like the movie, the book is presented as a first person narrative. Unlike the movie, the book connects the past with the present by offering a detailed picture of Julia's present state. The novel depicts the coincidental timing between Julia's work assignment and emotionally charged events in her family life. As part of this present time story, the novel introduces half dozen characters which seem two dimensional in the movie or don't appear at in the movie.
The movie serves its purpose. Without the movie, you might not have known about the book. Without the movie, you might not have known about the story.
Now that you know, I recommend you go the next step.
Scan through book reviews for this title.
If you're a reader, go for the printed version. If 400 pages, however well written, doesn't suite you then get the audio book.
Borrow it from a friend or library.
If you can't borrow it, buy it.
I'm off to see if this one stands apart or is on par with other books from Tatiana de Rosnay.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The movie fairly true to the book in that the telling of the story was
done with flash-backs and flash-forwards and things pretty well
followed the same plot. However, where the book was a compelling read,
the movie was far less so.
I hate to be picky, but I have to say that the single most frustrating thing about the movie was the very poor quality of the subtitles. Since this movie starred an Anglo actress (Kristin Scott Thomas) and some of the dialogue was in English, the subtitles should have been decent ... unfortunately no.
Here are a few examples.
"That's what I said yesterday al Normally he should be." (Huh? al? and why is normally capitalized? and exactly what the hell are you trying to say?).
"You never reacts, Julia. I have three ties left a message" I think what is meant here is, "You never answer, Julia. I have left three messages."
And another, "Bertrand I have spoken. He said you write an article about ..." How about, "Bertrand and I have spoken. He said you are writing (or you wrote) and article about ..."
It was very distracting having to read these dreadful translations and it took a lot away from the movie. Surely, they could have asked Kristin Scott Thomas - or anyone else with basic English skills - to give them a once over and make them readable. It's mind-blowing how awful they were (and the examples I gave were all from about one five- minute stretch in the movie ... there are dozens more just like them).
Elle s'appelait Sarah is a heart touching, sad movie about world war II
definitely worth watching, yet it has got is up and down sides. Let me
start with the up sides.
To be very simple: the movie tells a great story. However, if you have seen other movies of WW II ( The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas,...) it becomes very familiar. Still, this movie has its unique details, so it can distinguish itself ( but only a little bit). Second good thing is the acting of the main character (Kristin Scott Thomas) which really carries this movie along with the fact it has a good story. I also have to congratulate the young actress Mélusine Mayance, for the same reason.
Now the down sides. There is some bad acting from several actors like Frédéric Pierrot which surprises me a bit. Anyway, it's not really disturbing but I didn't like it. Second thing what did disturb me was the fact some scenes just didn't needed to be there, which slows the movie down. On the other side some scenes needed to be more stretched out. Third thing is the fact that the movie romanticizes the war. The camp looked like a amusement park with all the kids playing. If you're going to make a movie about the war, you should show it in all its aspects, because now it can give a biased view.
Conclusion: Elle s'appelait Sarah missed a final touch. Maybe it was the acting? Or the music which didn't play a major role in it? Or scenes that had to last a little longer because they were so important? A bit of the three perhaps. In a nutshell: it's worth watching. That's why I give it a 7/10.
Sarah's key intertwines a story of indescribable hardships during the
1942 holocaust period, with one of a modern day journalist engrossed in
writing an article about the Vel' d'Hiv. In 1942 the French government
supported a Nazi-decreed raid on the Jewish population living in Paris.
Many Jewish residents were rounded up and taken to Vel' d'Hiv (a
disused velodrome) where they were deprived of food and drink for days
and finally taken to the concentration camps. Among those held captive
was a young Jewish girl called Sarah Starzynski. Before being taken
along with her mother and father to the velodrome she locked her little
brother Michel in a closet in hope of keeping him safe. She promises to
return and let him out and that promise is a driving factor behind her
Closely weaved with the powerful scenes of Sarah's deportation and strive to escape is the story of 50 year old Julia Jarmond. A French journalist who's task of writing an article about the velodrome leads her to shocking discoveries about her own connection to this history. Her research unveils the story of Sarah and her escape from the concentration camps. However, she later learns that the house she is to inherit is in fact the house that Sarah and her family were taken away from. This collision between the past and her own future forces Julia to ask herself some questions about her own life, her work, her difficult relationship with her family and her relationship with her unborn child. Their stories become very closely connected to the point where they are almost inseparable. Julia's heartfelt mission takes her to meet those closely connected with Sarah as a child and has a tremendous impact on those who knew her.
Apart from conveying the main moral of the importance of understanding the past and how it can affect our present the movie ties in strong concepts of brutality, indifference, and responsibility. It has grim examples of the cruelty of some of the French and German officers as well as the idea that they weren't all bad with one guard actually helping Sarah and her friend escape. The movie puts much blame on the French government and the indifference of its citizens and shows shocking instances of both indifference and compassion of the French people.
Although Julia's story contains some powerful moments of past and present interlocking, her family issues and her unborn child are weak plot lines comparing to that of Sarah's. Her everyday modern issues take away from the gravity of Sarah's tragic story and give the film a bit of a modern cinema cliché. Despite this the film is still very gripping with Kristin Scott Thomas putting on an astounding performance. Being 2/3rd in French it is a film you must pay attention to in fear of getting lost but it is a movie I recommend to all those interested in the holocaust and its connections to our modern world.
Movies like this one right here, are not to everyones taste. So while I
don't read anything about the story myself before I watch a movie, I
would suggest you read at least a little about what this movie is about
(and no I won't spoil it for you here, IMDb has always good plot
descriptions on its site).
Kristen Stewart is our (the viewers) anchor here and she delivers as always. She did another drama around the same time as this, which was good too and it played with time-lines too. But this one right has more tension and drama combined then the other movie I mention. If you let yourself into the mood of the movie, you will be "entertained".
This film is part historical drama and part moral tale for the present. The historical drama deals with a little known corner of the holocaust, the French round-up and deportation to death camps of French Jews. This event is depicted through the experience of young Sarah and her family. The events are presented without any political and historical context. It does not attempt to deal with the question as to why the French nation turned on its own Jewish citizens in this way. It is simply an account of a brutal round-up of innocent people of a type we have seen a hundred times before in other holocaust-themed films. No doubt there was a time when the brute realities of the holocaust needed to be presented, but have we not moved to a point where a more complex presentation of events is needed? The narrative in this film is simple, predictable and rather boring. The film simply invites us to be shocked at Sarah's fate and sympathetic to her people and we are led on this journey of moral awakening by the American journalist excellently played by Kristin Scott-Thomas. Scott-Thomas is married to a French man and she is led to a discovery of generalised and suppressed French guilt for the fate of their Jewish citizens, a guilt visited upon succeeding generations, including Scott-Thomas's own husband who was not even born at the time of these terrible events. The message seems to be that European guilt for the fate of its Jews seventy years ago will never go away. If films of this kind keep latent anti-semitism at bay, maybe that is a good thing but at a certain point, which may already have arrived, surely the Jewish community, proud of its separate culture, will want to be appreciated for its contribution to the present rather than for the suffering of past generations. Jews have always been over-represented in the French cinema and in Hollywood, especially among the producers who decide what films get made (and nothing wrong with that). If they continue to turn out routine and unoriginal depictions of the holocaust, soliciting feelings of guilt in current generations, they risk accusations of special pleading.
For my tastes, this was an awkwardly constructed movie which took as
its starting-point a shameful episode within an already shameful period
of recent French history, the rounding up of Jews in Vichy France. The
movie shifts back and forth between the last and the present-day as
journalist Kristen Scott-Thomas finds a coincidental link between her
French husband's grandparents and a tragic story concerning an infant
Jewess's attempt to prevent her younger brother being taken into
I felt that either the main story of the young Sarah's unflagging efforts to be back to check on her brother's safety or its extension into her later life as she vainly struggles to cope psychologically with her failure would each have made convincing and gripping movies. As it is, they're subsumed into Scott-Thomas's own life story and her relationship with her husband and daughter which are given undue prominence considering the weightiness of what has preceded it.
I don't doubt that French guilt over the collaboration of its citizens with the occupying Germans during the War is a subject for cinematic investigation and guess that's why the director chose to frame the story with Scott-Thomas's life-line, which leads to a reconciliation with Sarah's surviving son at the end of the movie, but her story is so light- weight and incongruous compared to Sarah's horrific travails that the early impact of the movie is severely dampened by the ending. When Scott-Thomas calls her daughter "Sweetie" or argues with her husband whether to abort her unexpected later-life pregnancy, it jars the sensibilities and if the director was trying to make a pro-life point by drawing on the inspiration of Sarah's life, it passed me by.
Naturally I'm going to say that all the effective acting in the movie was in the war-time scenes, especially the child-actress playing Sarah and besides her ability to speak French and English fluently, I don't see what Scott-Thomas really brought to the film. I really don't think this movie served its subject well and believe there were at least two better movies in there waiting to get out.
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