Article/ Sarah’s Key: A Key to the Past

Kristin Scott Thomas stars in Sarah’s Key, a powerful drama that uncovers a shameful event from France’s wartime past

By Ian Haydn Smith

On the morning of July 16 1942, over 13,000 Jews living in Paris were arrested, and eventually deported, to internment camps around France and Nazi occupied Europe. All but a handful of those captured were to die before the war ended. Though officially named Opération Vent Printanier (‘Operation Spring Breeze’), it became better known as the Vel d’Hiv Roundup, after the Parisian velodrome in which many of the Jewish captives were processed.

This was not the first raid to take place in France, but it is identified as the first in which French authorities were clearly complicit in its planning and execution. (On 12 July 1942, Émile Hennequin, director of the city police, ordered that “the operations must be effected with the maximum speed, without pointless speaking and without comment”.)

Sarah’s Key tells the story of what happened from the perspective of Sarah, a young Jewish girl detained with her parents, and Julia (Scott Thomas, who once again impresses with her choice of roles), a journalist in the present day who is writing a story about the Roundup. She wants to raise awareness of what happened, but gradually realises her own family’s secret link to the past.

Unlike the Nazis, whose atrocities were documented in every minute detail, many of the actions carried out by their collaborators passed into the mist of time with little to remember them by. This was true of the Vel d’Hiv Roundup, particularly after the generation that had experienced them first hand – either the few remaining survivors or the many who lived within close proximity of the velodrome and had to endure the stench that emanated from it – had died. The young journalists in the film, whom Julia works with, are shocked and embarrassed at not knowing what took place.

Sarah’s Key is certainly not the first film to present a portrait of France’s role in the Second World War that contrasts with more heroic accounts. The decades since the conflict ended have witnessed a wide array of films that often work against the notion that anyone who was not a member of the Vichy regime was a hero of the Resistance. Such films have often been met with anger.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the opprobrium that greeted the release of Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien (1974). There was no denying the artistry and skill by which the film was assembled, but its story of a young boy turned down by the Resistance only to become a collaborator offended many (Le Monde famously hailed it to be a masterpiece whilst also decrying it as dangerous, while Libération denounced it as a pro-collaboration tract).  Sarah’s Key highlights the importance of revealing the truth, even if it comes at a cost. Because with it, the bravery of individuals shines through, as does the difficulty many would have faced in standing up to an occupying force. As Hans Fallada’s ‘Alone in Berlin’ detailed the difficulties of remaining aloof from complicity with the Nazis in Berlin during the war, the story of what took place at Vel d’Hiv shows how otherwise ordinary people could be drawn into a web of hatred and cruelty through fear and oppression.

But for every person who cursed at the Jewish prisoners as they were carted off to the velodrome, countless others displayed heroism, from sheltering Jews to the smallest acts of kindness. What Sarah’s Key highlights, is that even in the darkest of hours, our greatest triumph lies in maintaining our humanity.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

Sarah’s Key screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 5 August