Sarah’s Key: Book into Movie

“When a story is told, it is not forgotten…”   — “Sarah’s Key” the movie

The Background: Vel d’Hiv Roundup

The story has to be told, because it is based on a historical event that has long been ignored. On July 16 and 17, 1942, the French police in Paris rounded up more than 13,000 Jews in Paris, among them 4,000 children, and confined them in the Velodrome d’Hiver (Winter Velodrome), an indoor bicycle racing track and stadium not far from the Eiffel Tower. There in the Velodrome the Jews were kept under French police guard for five days with no food and just one tap. They were subsequently sent to internment camps outside of Paris, where children were torn apart from their parents. Apart or together, they shared the same fate. From the internment camps, young and old alike were later transported by train to the Auschwitz extermination camp. The Velodrome, which was situated in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, has since been torn down but the event remains a dark page in France’s history.

The Vel d’Hiv roundup had been ignored for decades in the classrooms of the nation. Post-war French leaders from de Gaulle to Mitterrand had kept mum on the issue of France’s role in deporting Jews to the death camps. It was not until Jacques Chirac became president in 1995 that the French state accepted its official complicity, in particular, the Vel d’Hiv roundup. Here’s an excerpt of Chirac’s historical speech taken from a TIME magazine article:

France, homeland of the Enlightenment and of human rights, land of welcome and asylum; France, on that very day, accomplished the irreparable,” Chirac said in his speech, using the Vel d’Hiv roundup as a metaphor for all Vichy crimes. “Failing her promise, she delivered those she was to protect to their murderers.

A story based on this true event ought to be noticed. The French drama based on true accounts, “La Rafle” (“The Round Up”), was released in 2010 to a large audience in the country. And for us in North America, we have the novel Sarah’s Key (2007) and its movie adaptation (2010) to inform us of that horrific event and the imagined scenario of its impact on the lives involved.

(Spoiler Alert from here on.)

The Book

Written by Tatiana de Rosnay and published in 2007, the book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 120 weeks. It has sold 5 million copies world wide and been released in 38 countries. de Rosnay has published works in French. This is her first English language book.

The book weaves two stories together 60 years apart. 10 year-old Sarah Starzynski’s family is one of those being rounded up on July 16, 1942. On the spur of the moment, Sarah hides and locks her 4 year-old brother Michel in a cupboard in the wall of their bedroom, thinking there he will be safe until she comes back for him. It was horrific for her and her parents to find out later that they won’t be returning at all.

Sarah and her parents are kept in Vel d’Hiv in appalling conditions, only to be deported to an internment camp where she is separated from them. Her determination never wavers though in getting back home to let her brother out of the locked cupboard. She has kept the key, guarding it with her life.

Fast forward to 2002. Julia Jarmond, a U.S. expatriate married and working as a journalist in Paris, delves into the research of the Vel d’Hiv roundup for a magazine article commemorating its 60th anniversary. She is totally absorbed by the little-known event. What’s more, she finds out that the apartment that used to belong to her French husband’s grandparents and which is now under renovation for her to move in was the very home of Sarah and her family.

At the same time, Julia struggles with a personal dilemma. At 45, mother to 11 year-old Zoé, and after two miscarriages, Julia is excited to find out she is pregnant. Her husband does not share her sentiment however, pressing her to abort. The poignant story of Sarah inspires Julia’s decision as the story unfolds.

While I whole-heartedly admire the author for her intention to honor the victims of Vel d’Hiv and her eagerness to expose the atrocities afterwards, I have reservations about the literary quality judging from the style and structure of the book. At several points, I feel the writing redundant. And for a novel written for an adult readership, it gives me the feeling of being talked down to, told what to think and how to feel.

Structurally, it presents the two stories in alternating chapters. The shifting is abrupt as the chapters are only three pages long. This lasts till the middle of the book when the story of Sarah’s key comes to an end. That occurs when Sarah makes it back to her apartment and discovers the heart-wrenching horror. The rest of the book is the continuation of modern day Julia’s story, her persistence to discover Sarah’s trail after the war and dealing with her own personal dilemma. Compared to Sarah’s story, this latter part seems trivial and anti-climatic.

The Movie

One year after it premiered at the TIFF, I finally have the chance to see this movie as it is being screened only recently in one theatre here in town.

Screenwriter director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has gleaned the essence of the novel and tightened the plot in an engrossing way. By virtue of its form, the movie has the advantage of showing rather than telling.  It can condense paragraphs of words into a cinematic moment frozen in the mind’s eye. The film is captivating, telling the story with vivid and haunting images.

We see the recreated Vel d’Hiv and its appalling condition. We see a woman plunging to her death from a high level in the Velodrome, an apparent suicide. We see the horror of children torn away from their mothers in the internment camp. We see too the desperation of Sarah finally running up to her apartment, pounding on the door of the new family living there. We see her barging into her bedroom and unlocking the cupboard. And from inside there with the camera pointing out, we see the terror on Sarah’s face as she looks in. We hear her scream.

The storytelling is carried out by the excellent performance of the two main actors, Mélusine Mayance as Sarah and Kristin Scott Thomas (“I’ve Loved You So Long”, 2008) as Julia Jarmond. The structure of the plot limits young Sarah to only the first part of the film, albeit her portrayal is memorable, her unseen presence lingers through the movie.

Kristin Scott Thomas always delivers. Her role as the persistent journalist Julia is convincing and a pleasure to watch. Her cool demeanor conveys the fact that it takes intelligence and professionalism to find the truth as a journalist, and yet, once exposed, the truth can have the affective power to inspire and turn one’s life around. Scott Thomas has aptly portrayed this change.

Nevertheless, the weakness of the film lies in the lack of character development in the ‘minor’ roles. If given more depth, they can sharpen the conflicts and enhance the story. I’m thinking of Julia’s relationships with husband Betrand (Frédéric Pierrot, “I’ve Loved You So Long”, 2008) who insists on her abortion, and with her daughter Zoé (Karina Hin).

And since I’ve been looking for ‘intrusions of grace’ lately, there’s a scene here that is of note. It is not in the book, but screenwriter/director Paquet-Brenner has aptly created a poignant cinematic moment with it.  When Sarah and another girl are trying to crawl under a barbed wire to escape from the internment camp, they are caught by a guard. But upon the urgent appeal of Sarah, he softens. Using his bare hands to hold up the wire, he pushes the girls through. The camera then closes up on his bleeding hand, pierced by the barbs, an apt allusion. How we need these ‘intrusions of grace’ to shed a glimmer of hope amidst overwhelming darkness.

“Sarah’s Key” may well be one of those examples where the movie speaks more powerfully than its source material. If you are time-pressed, go for the cinematic rendition.

***

To read more about the Vel d’Hiv roundup and related articles, click on the following links:

Behind the French Ruling on WWII Deportations of Jews“, TIME.

“Remembering the Vel d’Hiv” The Economist.

“Letters from Drancy” The Guardian.

“Vel d’Hiv Roundup” Wikipedia

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

15 thoughts on “Sarah’s Key: Book into Movie”

  1. Ah, thanks Arti – you have saved me from what I call the “obligatory TBR stack.” I can now withdraw the book Sarah’s Key and instead go to the theatre with friends on this one.

    .
    Oh, our TBR stacks. I’ve found a way to release the pressure… think of them as your personal library. Nobody ever reads all the books in a library, right? 😉

    Arti

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  2. Catching up and glad to read this. I loved the book, but also felt it had its flaws. So, I’ve waited eagerly for the film (which will probably never come here and I’ll have to wait for the video). Kristen Scott-Thomas is always right on key and I suspect that I, too, will find this film richer (although some of the sub-characters, the grandmother and father in law — well, I hope they do well with them.). Thanks again for another insightful look.

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    jeanie,

    A I mentioned in my post, the movie has its weaknesses too. But the overall effect is captivating, and with KST’s modern day story, it gives a contemporary feel. Other than the proficient acting of the main actors, the cinematography and the music, in other words, the sight and sound, are what compensate for its limitations… something the novel doesn’t have.

    Arti

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  3. I’m so glad to read your reviews here, as I know I could tackle neither the book nor the film. I did teach Holocaust literature, back in the day, but I think that teaching it gave me some necessary distance. Now, I find I cannot read it (or watch film adaptations of it) any more. I strongly support artworks that deal with the topic – there’s an ethical imperative to remember what happened, and to face up to what humankind can do to each other. But for now, I’m happy to hear about these second hand rather than experience them myself.

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    litlove,

    I know what you mean… There’s a large amount of subjectivity to the appreciation of genres and subject matters, in both literary and in films. Like, there are genres that I won’t touch, and that’s horror and the paranormal. But I’m glad you’re fine with ‘second-hand’ exposure… and you’ll find them here, ripples from others’ storytelling. 😉

    Arti

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  4. Arti, it was most interesting to know your response to the book as I had read it a few months and felt a little niggle of dissatisfaction with it. I don’t have your excellent ability to analyse structure, so it became much clearer to me after reading this post why the book didn’t fully engage me. I did find the story of Sarah absolutely compelling but had a similar feeling of disjointedness. I did wonder if the fact that De Rosnay wrote the English version rather than having it translated from the French was responsible for the ‘tone’ of her writing. Although she is perfectly bilingual, her style of writing in French, which didn’t disturb me, may not work so well in English, and in my limited experience of writing in both languages, style remains the same – in my case recognizably Anglophone.

    I never lost the feeling throughout the book of how astonishing it is that La Rafle was kept under wraps for so long. A terrible wound for France.

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    1. Deborah,

      I’m glad to hear that someone shares how I feel and can suggest a reason for it. I think what you’ve pointed out may well be the cause. There are definitely different styles when one writes in different languages. I trust your judgement since you’re a bilingual writer in both English and French. Style sticks with you, like right-handed or left-handed… mmm is that an apt analogy?

      I read the book earlier this year. I did not have an enjoyable time with it not because of the subject matter, but mainly due to the quality of the writing. That’s why I hesitate posting a review on it. After I’ve seen the movie, I reread the book and found my first impression remains. But due to the significance of the Vel d’Hiv event, I feel I need to write a post, if only to inform my readers about the historical dark spot.

      But of course, this only points to the inevitable question: “What would you do?” in both Sarah’s case, and the French Police. It’s horrific that a ten year-old girl has to bear such a devastating burden all her life, it’s equally troubling to see the French officials and those involved participated in the atrocity just to ‘follow orders’. We’ve seen other books and movies exploring this tormenting moral conflict. I’m thinking here of the book and its movie adaption The Reader.

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  5. I’m a little chagrined – at myself – for not knowing about these events. On the other hand, in 1995 I still was in the throes of starting a business and moving Mom down here – I know what life was like then, and films, books and even news of something like Chirac’s speech would simply have passed me by.

    Your review is interesting precisely because it underlines something you say so often – books and films are different creatures, and can accomplish different ends. In this case, it sounds as though a little imaginative reconstruction – a little story-telling! – allowed the film to communicate in a way the book couldn’t.

    Though I’ll pass on the book and the movie, I’m glad to know about the events. There seems to be a creeping anti-Semitism abroad in the land again, and we need to remember.

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    Linda,

    I admit I didn’t know about the Vel d’Hiv roundup until I read the book. So that definitely makes it a little different from other Holocaust literature. It’s interesting, like litlove, you like to stay with reading about them. If you’ve time, do click on the links to those informative articles at the end of my post.

    Arti

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  6. I felt similarly about the book. I think you’ve captured precisely its flaws. This gives me some hope, therefore, for the movie. I don’t know if it has played in theaters here yet. I think that it has and I missed it, but I will look for it when available on DVD — something that I wouldn’t have considered if I hadn’t read your review.

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    Anne,

    I think it’s important that we not forget events like this. And storytelling may just be the most effective way to help us remember. Yes, do go for the DVD. And it’s timely for us here in Canada… today I saw someone on the street wearing a poppy already. That’s our Remembrance Day in Canada coming Nov. 11

    Arti

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  7. I have a really hard time with books/movies about wars, so I appreciate your review on my behalf 😉 And with regards to your comment about mountains… I looked up San Gorgonio mountain (among the San Bernardino mountain range) and discovered its peak is at 11,500ft. And we were hiking at about 8,000ft. I think mountains near you are about that height, too.

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    nikkipolani,

    Yes thanks for the data. I just checked,some of the peaks of our Rocky Mtn. are over 12,500 ft. in altitude. Hiking at 8,000 ft. must be quite an ordeal.

    Arti

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  8. A beautiful review, as always, of both the book and the film. Not having read the book or seen the film myself, I imagine that I might feel the same based on your reviews, and my previous experiences in similar reads and films. I have often thought how difficult it is to make a film, edit it properly, so that it is just right. But at the very least, if the screenplay is well written, with good character development, as you say, then the results give us that to sink our teeth into. Hopefully the actors and director can pull it off. I do love KST, no matter what her film is.

    I, too, have posted something out of the holocaust. I am very interested in this part of the story, which I had not heard. I think that until we all recognize that we are each and all capable of great evils, we can’t really heal ourselves, and forgive.

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    Ruth,

    That’s a good point you’ve mentioned, that we need to confront what had happened instead of sweeping it under the carpet. And of course, it’s not a simple matter… having to admit responsibility and deal with the emotions and pain afterwards. KST is always reliable to tell a story in a most affective and poignant way. I’m thinking of her role in “I’ve Loved You So Long”. I’m sure you’ll enjoy both movies when you’ve the chance to watch them.

    Arti

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  9. I was very sorry to have missed this film when it showed here a couple of months ago Arti. I was overly committed with parental hospitalisations. I, in fact, hadn’t heard of the book. I know some people say that they won’t see a film before they’ve read the book but there many books that I know I wouldn’t plan to read and so I have no problem seeing those films without reading the book. I would have seen this one without knowing I’d missed the book … but it sounds like it wouldn’t have been a problem to have done so!

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    WG,

    You might have to catch this one on DVD now. I usually like to read book then watch movie, but of course, it’s just not always feasible. The book is hugely popular here a year ago, albeit I feel a topic and an event like this deserves much higher literary renderings. Regarding the tug-of-war between “Readability” and “Quality”, I feel there’s no need that the two be mutually exclusive. A good writer’s goal may just be to join the two.

    Arti

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  10. Wow – so this joins The Shining and Shutter Island as a rare case where the film is better than the book, huh? I haven’t read the book – but I loved the movie. It’s always so interesting to compare a film to its source material. I’m glad you were finally able to see this.

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    David,

    I haven’t read the books the Shining or Shutter Island, so can’t say how this may differ. But, consider the popularity of the book Sarah’s Key, I can only say that the subject matter trumps all… which is good in a sense, now a huge lot of people are informed about the Vel d’Hiv Roundup.

    Arti

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  11. La Rafle was a fictional depiction of the round-up (la rafle) in the Vel’ d’Hiv during the Nazi occupation, not a “documentary.”

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    1. Bonny,

      Thanks for correcting me. You’re right, it’s not a documentary, but a drama based on real life accounts of The Round-Up. I’ve made the change in my sentence. 😉

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  12. Arti, thank you for a great review. I did not read the book but I thought the movie was great. The little girl that played Sarah was brilliant and of course Kristin S. Thomas always delivers as you said.

    Enjoyed the movie.

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