August 1942 – a Jewish family was forced out of their apartment to join thousand others in Vel d’Hiv (Vélodrome d’Hiver) – before they were transported to the concentration camps, they had to endure hours of heat and unsanitary conditions. Some of the ladies couldn’t cope and hurled themselves of the balcony, whilst most did as best as they could to prepare themselves for their final destiny.
The family – Wladyslaw and Rywka Starzynski, along with the daughter Sarah – were separated in the transit camp, with Sarah holding on to a key to a cupboard in their old apartment. When the police rounded the family, Sarah asked her little brother Michel to hide in the cupboard until they come to fetch him.
Years later, an American journalist living in Paris, Julia Jarmond (Kirstin Scott Thomas) is researching the Vel d’Hiv tragedy when she finds out that the apartment that she and her husband have just inherited from her in-laws, were actually where the Starzynskis lived. Julia is intrigued on whether her in-laws know about the history of the apartment and what actually happened to little Sarah. The more she digs, the more she finds out about the tragedy that brings her back to New York and eventually Florence, Italy.
Sarah’s Key is directed by Giless Paquet-Brenner intersperses the scenes in 1942 with the current time investigation carried out by Julia. He also wisely directs the movie well so that it doesn’t plunge into melodrama. Whilst the scenes of the rounding-up are really heart-wrenching, there is a line in the movie when one of the younger journalists wonders whether the Parisians know about the horror that happened in their backyard nearly seventy years ago. Julia then answered with a question, “What would you have done if you had been there?”. It’s hard to take a high and mighty moral ground when we are not in the situation.
Kirstin Scott Thomas is wonderful as usual, and the actress playing the young Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) is also very convincing in her part.
The tension in the movie is well-guarded in the first part of the movie and somehow loosens up in the second part after Julia travels to Florence. The side-story about Julia and her husband also seems to fizzle without any satisfying closure. The movie does pick the tempo and the tension again towards the end, only to end it a tad bit abruptly – as if somebody tapped Paquet-Brenner’s shoulder and told him to wrap things up in ten minutes. Nevertheless, Sarah’s Key is a moving story for those who want to learn about the dark history in Europe during World War II. There are so many ugly stories about the rounding-up of the Jews that I didn’t know earlier and having visited the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany only makes me realise the horror even more.
The movie is based on a book by Tatiana de Rosnay.