One of the hard truths of life is that there’s never enough time to read all the books you want to read, or to see all the films that pique your interest. So it wasn’t until the last two weeks that I caught up with “Sarah’s Key”, the multi-layered novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, and its movie version, starring Kristin Scott Thomas.
“Sarah’s Key” tells two stories simultaneously. We follow Sarah, a 10-year-old Jewish girl in Occupied Paris, as she and her parents fall victim to the infamous Vel d’Hiv Roundup conducted not by the SS, but by the French authorities. Before leaving their apartment, Sarah tries to save her 4-year-old brother Michel by locking him in a secret cupboard, promising him, “I’ll come back for you”, as she pockets the key. The second story is that of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist, who comes to learn the role her French husband’s family played in Sarah’s story after Vel d’Hiv and her later escape from a detainment camp in Drancy.
De Rosnay fits a number of considerable issues into her compact book. Let’s start with the theme common to both stories—the varying degrees of culpability displayed by the characters. We first see the outright collaboration of the French authorities, who eagerly exceeded what the SS ordered by including over 4,000 Jewish children in the Vel d’Hiv Roundup. Collaboration shades into complicity as we watch the behavior of the landlady at Sarah’s apartment building, as well as that of various characters who see and do nothing. And then there’s the Tézac family, Julia’s in-laws, who passively benefit from the situation by moving into the large and suddenly vacant apartment of Sarah’s family only a few days after the Roundup. They suspect, but choose to ignore until confronted by Sarah’s return. And finally, there are Julia’s husband and his aged grandmother, who simply bury the past altogether and hope everyone will forget.
De Rosnay’s story forces us to consider other, yet equally important questions. What is identity? Is it right to confront someone with the fact that a parent was not who she says she was, and by extension, you as her child are not who you think you are? This happens twice in “Sarah’s Key”, the first, with a happy outcome, when Julia’s father-in-law learns that his own father, despite all appearances, never forgot Sarah. And then because of Julia’s compulsion to learn Sarah’s fate, she meets her son, who is shocked to learn of his mother’s experiences. He almost nastily denies what Julia’s investigation has uncovered, but after the passage of time, comes to embrace it, as well as the woman who brought him this knowledge. Though it’s easy to foresee, the tribute Julia ultimately pays Sarah is a fitting end to both stories.
The historic background of de Rosnay’s novel is little known in the U.S., where the myth persists that all of France fought in the Resistance during World War II down to the last man, woman and child. I already knew about the Vel d’Hiv Roundup—oddly enough, not because I had been a college history major, but through another excellent novel I had read in high school, “An Infinity of Mirrors” by Richard Condon, the author of “The Manchurian Candidate”. The shades of gray involved in the story of France during World War II can’t be described in a 30-second sound bite; the post-war sweeping of this history under the rug by the French themselves is another reason why we know so little about it. In fact it wasn’t until 1995 that a French official, in this case President Jacques Chirac, publicly acknowledged the nation’s complicity in the Vel d’Hiv Roundup and other similar actions during the Occupation.
Whether as novel or film, “Sarah’s Key” is a haunting experience. The movie follows the book version of Sarah’s story very closely, but Julia’s story loses some key elements in the translation to film—her background and marriage, the role her daughter plays in uncovering Sarah’s fate, and most prominently, the elimination of several of Julia’s in-laws and friends whose views and experiences illustrate a fascinating range of reactions to her investigation. There are also some subtle but important differences in the details. Both book and film contain a scene in which the Dufaures, the older couple who shelter Sarah, offer a bribe to a French official to refrain from demanding identity papers for the child they’re hiding in plain sight. Tellingly, in the novel he pockets the cash without further question; in the film he sees the bills, yet nobly declines the money, letting Sarah pass as the couple’s grandchild. I don’t think I’m being overly cynical by saying that the scene as related in the novel is closer to reality.
The film features some excellent performances by Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia, Niels Arestrup and Dominique Frot as the Dufaures, and especially Mélusine Mayance as Sarah. The DVD version has a lengthy and engrossing “Making of…” that adds to the experience in important ways. Both the movie and the book are well worth your time.