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‘Sarah’s Key’ opens a closed chapter in France

Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner says many young French people don’t know about France’s collaboration with the Nazis. Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner says many young French people don’t know about France’s collaboration with the Nazis. (Scott Lapierre)
By James H. Burnett III
Globe Staff / July 31, 2011

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Growing up in France in the 1970s and ’80s, film director Gilles Paquet-Brenner had one take on the Holocaust: that it happened during World War II and that it was the Germans’ fault . . . all the Germans’ fault.

He may have continued to feel that way had he not read Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel “Sarah’s Key’’ in 2007 and learned a shameful fact: In 1942, the French government gave in to the Nazis’ push to rid Europe of Jews.

“Sarah’s Key’’ moved Paquet-Brenner so much that he decided to risk the possible wrath of his elders to bring the story to film. He knew the resulting movie, opening Friday, would be controversial “because there are some people who really do believe the saying that the past should be left in the past,’’ he says. Best known for the 2001 sibling drama “Pretty Things,’’ Paquet-Brenner, 36, pushed forward anyway, co-writing the film adaptation with Serge Joncour. Their screenplay is full of emotion in its own right - pain, occasional joy, and, though Paquet-Brenner is atheist, even an air of spirituality.

While Germans over the years have taken the brunt of global judgment for “allowing’’ the Nazi regime to perpetrate the Holocaust, during the summer of ’42 French police, at Hitler’s behest, rounded up more than 13,000 Jews in Paris and herded them into the Vélodrome d’Hiver, or Vel’ d’Hiv, a winter sports stadium, where they languished for days without food, water, or bathrooms before being shipped off to concentration camps.

“Sarah’s Key’’ shares the sad life of 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski, who was dragged to the Vel’ d’Hiv with her parents, who later died at Auschwitz. Sarah escaped the camp and led a sad, too-short life that ended in the United States. And her key? It was literal, the tool with which she hoped to save her younger brother’s life by locking him in a secret closet the morning police came for her family.

Running parallel to - but 57 years after - Sarah’s story is that of Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist living in France, who learns of Sarah’s plight in 2009, when her own growing family prepares to move into the Starznyskis’ old Paris apartment. In another bit of art imitating life or at least complementing it, Thomas has lived in Paris for decades and was married to a French Jewish doctor, with whom she has children.

Paquet-Brenner says a friend got him a copy of de Rosnay’s debut English-language novel in March 2007, and “I couldn’t put it down.’’ That was partly because the plot engrossed him and partly because of his own family history.

“My own grandfather was a German Jew, married to my French Catholic grandmother. He was a composer, and she was a violinist,’’ Paquet-Brenner said. “I knew halfway through ‘Sarah’s Key’ I wanted to make it into a movie. My grandfather was arrested by French police and died a short time later, in the Majdanek concentration camp. So this story grabbed me in ways I can’t fully explain.’’

Still, he struggled with the idea of putting the tale onscreen.

“I worried about whether or not we needed yet another Holocaust film,’’ he says. “But the more I thought about it the more convinced I was that this was less about another Holocaust portrayal than it was about addressing a moment in history for the French people, and also making sure that younger generations understood what happened in France. They don’t know. They didn’t know. Not French young people, or any, in any of the places we’ve shown the film.’’

French actress Mélusine Mayance, who portrays young Sarah, certainly didn’t know, and as per French law had to be examined by a psychologist before being permitted to work on the film.

“The psychologist said that if she had been Jewish he would not have greenlit her for this movie,’’ Paquet-Brenner says. “It was that serious.’’

The film strives for suspense, crafting a world in which Raymond Chandler collides with a gruesome history book to slowly peel back the layers of Sarah’s and Julia’s lives: a little girl who barely escaped the concentration camps and a modern woman struggling to keep her family together and lead a “normal’’ life.

“It was intentional,’’ Paquet-Brenner says of his weaving Julia’s average, seemingly minor-by-comparison problems with Sarah’s. “I thought that showing how a modern person viewed what happened back then would help younger audiences relate to the more stark, historical parts of the story. It was a tough technical aspect of making this film, addressing the issue of how to make history relevant in today’s world. Some critics have said that Julia’s small problems diminished the history in the story, but I’m a filmmaker, not a journalist. I have to make sure that the story - even one of such powerful history - is accessible to a mainstream audience.’’

He says he is commonly asked by filmgoers in their teens and 20s: “Did that really happen? Seriously?’’

Those questions never arose during Paquet-Brenner’s childhood in France because back then, “it was all about the Holocaust,’’ he says. “That was a terrible enough conversation. And in France, as in so many countries, when it came to that period of history, that’s what we were told about and that’s what we heard discussed. We never heard about the Vel’ d’Hiv.’’

Given that omission by his elders, Paquet-Brenner says, “Sarah’s Key’’ was surprisingly well received when it debuted in France last year. He says the film drew two distinctly different reactions: There was sorrow and resignation from older people who may have been alive when the Vel’ d’Hiv happened, and there was complete shock from younger people who thought only Germany bore blame for the Holocaust.

With the success of “Sarah’s Key’’ at the box office, Paquet-Brenner says he hopes some day to make a film about Berlin in the 1930s to explore how a progressive, evolved society got trapped in Hitler’s movement.

“History should not be a burden,’’ he says. “It should be taken as an opportunity to improve ourselves.’’

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@ jamesburnett.

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