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Thursday, 10 April 2014

Sarah's Key (2010)

Were it not for BBC4 (hopefully not doomed like its lively younger sister BBC3), there would be hardly any foreign language films shown on British television. They have also gifted us with an amazing run of subtitled European television serials in their regular Saturday night slot. Yes, there is the very occasional title on Sky Premier (but only in the ratio of about l to 50 crappy television movies or animations) and the equally rare showing of one of the 'classics' on Film Four. CineMoi while it lasted was brilliant, at least initially, but most often I must seek out films that I would like to see in repertory showings or on disc. Meanwhile I can fondly recall the days when there would be whole seasons of foreign films on the now populist BBC2. More's the pity!

The above French movie actually premiered on Film Four along with a dreary policier starring Daniel Auteuil, and was something of a corker. Directed and co-written by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and based on a popular novel ("Elle s'appelait Sarah") by Tatiana DeRosnay, it joins a number of recent films in movingly discussing the Holocaust by telling a small story on a very human level. Sarah Strazynski is a self-possessed and buoyant 10-year old, who, when the police come to round up her family in a notorious Jewish purge, cheerfully locks her younger brother in a bedroom wall cupboard, enjoining him to remain quiet during what she tells him is a "game"She believes that she is saving him and that she will soon be back to release him. Instead she and her parents are crowded into the Vel' d'Hiv cycling stadium along with 10000 other Paris Jews in this infamous 1942 round-up, kept in inhuman conditions for several days, before being sent off to various death camps.

This was a little known atrocity in the history of other atrocities of the period, although if memory serves it was also the staging point for the demise of Alain Delon in the scathing 1976 film "Mr Klein". The main point of contention is that the hazing, persecuting, and confiscation of property was carried out not by Germans, but by the French themselves against their fellow citizens. Separated from her mother and father and still in possession of the fatal key, Sarah manages to escape from a French camp with another girl, furiously driven by her determination to return to Paris and release young Michel. They end up at the farm of the Dufaure family where her companion dies, but where the initially unwilling-to-get-involved elderly couple conceal Sarah and ultimately raise her as their own. The patriarch is played by the imposing actor Niels Arestrup who has graced a number of French hits in the past few years (I saw him recently as the bull-headed vintner in "You Will be my Son"), and he is always a majestic force of nature. Eventually they manage to get Sarah back to the flat in Paris where another French family are now living (despite the horrible smell!!!), but of course it is too late. Sarah knows in her heart that she has killed her brother. The fact that he almost certainly would have died anyhow is very much by the by in her mind.

These events from the past are mixed in with her researches for an article by the American-born, but French-domiciled journalist Julia (played by the majestic Kristin Scott Thomas). She and her husband have a son and had hoped for a second child after a series of miscarriages. He wants the three of them to move into a renovated apartment owned by his aging parents, but Julia becomes convinced that it is the scene of Sarah's fatal if well-intended action. . She is also at long last pregnant, but her husband no longer wants a late-in-life child. Increasingly estranged from her husband and determined to discover what has become of Sarah, she traces the Dufaure descendants to discover that the girl left the family at the earliest opportunity, but sent them a marriage announcement from America. She journeys to the States and then to Florence to find Sarah's son, played by a horrified Aidan Quinn. When asked if he recognizes the photo of the young girl wearing her yellow star, he recoils and protests that his mother wasn't Jewish. It later emerges that she hauled him off to the nearest church after his birth to be baptized, convinced that being Jewish meant death. Julia also learns that Sarah's own death at a relatively early age was not really an unfortunate road accident but an act of suicide from a troubled woman who could no longer live with her own guilt.

Apart from the named actors above, I did not recognize most of the cast, but singular praise must go to Melusine Mayance who played the young Sarah with a mixture of pig-headed bravery and stoic pathos. The film definitely has its share of teary-eyed moments to engage the viewer, but these are done with only minimal fanfare and are never milked for sentiment. The movie is a fine testimony to some truly horrible history.   
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