Sarah’s Key tells two stories, firstly that of Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) a 10-year-old Jewish girl in Paris at the start of World War II and secondly that of investigative journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) who is writing about the Nazi deportations from the city for her magazine in the late 00s. The film looks at the deportation of French Jews across the gulf of almost seventy years, but probably takes on a bit too much to fully succeed
Like Days of Glory which portrayed the actions of Muslim Algerian troops in the Second World War, Sarah’s Key is to some extent an attempt to come to grips with France’s past, in this case, the role of French civil servants and police in the round up and deportation of Jews. After many years of successive governments ignoring the story, President Chirac made the first official public apology in 1995. His speech was made at the Velodrome d’Hiver cycling stadium, where roughly 10,000 Jews were interned before deportation to concentration camps in 1940. Unlike Days of Glory, this film is made in the English language.
Sarah Starzynski lives with her parents and younger brother Michel in a small flat in a working class district of Paris. One sunny July day, the French authorities come to the apartment to take the family away while kepi-wearing policemen keep order down on the streets below. Just in the nick of time, Sarah manages to lock her brother in a cupboard to keep him safe. The rest of the family are kept for three days in the Velodrome d’Hiver with 13,000 other people. Sarah is later separated from her parents and put in an internment camp.
The key that Sarah clasps so tightly, and gives the film its name, will unlock the cupboard where her brother is hiding – if she can get there in time. She does finally escape the camp and reach the cupboard, but although she survives the war, the horrors continue to cast a long shadow. Her key becomes an emblem for the continuing effects of the Nazi barbarity.
Meanwhile in the present, Julia Jarmond is an American journalist living in Paris with her French architect husband and 12-year-old daughter where she’s researching the deportations. Jarmond is serious, hard working and determined to bring a neglected period of history to light. Kristin Scott Thomas’s signature intensity is always compelling, but in Sarah’s Key she lacks some of her usual sparkle. Perhaps the gravity of her investigations extinguishes any of her playfulness.
While investigating the fate of Sarah and the rest of the Starzynski family, Jarmond’s family life becomes complicated. Her husband Bertrand Tezac (Frédéric Pierrot), a successful architect with a brusque manner, is not a very sympathetic man and even less so when she becomes pregnant. Jarmond then finds that back in 1940 her husband’s family moved into the flat the Starzynski’s had just vacated. The implications are not pleasant.
It’s here that the film struggles: the architect husband is a rather one-dimensional character and the couple’s relationship is not given enough space to be much more than a sad side story. More crucially, if this film is meant to give us some insight into the French complicity in the deportations, it doesn’t have enough time devoted to how the government and authorities were involved. Sarah’s Key is based on a book by Tatiana de Rosnay and perhaps the book gives more attention to the matter, but in the film Jesmond’s researches are a blunt instrument for examining such a complex situation.
Sarah’s Key is a moving film, especially the storyline about the Starzynski family, but the storyline based in present day France is stretched a bit too far. Despite featuring the stellar Kristin Scott Thomas, and even a small role by Niels Arestrup who put in such a menacing performance in Un prophète last year, the film loses some of its power by taking on too many stories.