Lest We Forget or Never Realised

This is my review of Sarah’s Key [DVD] [2010].

Films of bestselling books are often a disappointment. Although I had already read and been moved by (enjoyed is an inappropriate word for a holocaust theme) the book, I think the film has a better structure, in that it does not allow the "modern" thread of the story to dominate too much or become too trite and sentimental. It is also beautifully shot and very well acted.

A film version may also serve the purpose of bringing to a wider audience the atrocity of the "Vél d'Hiv", or rounding up by the French police of Jewish women and children in Paris for transportation to Auschwitz. The horror is compounded in this story by the "twist" that the young heroine, Sarah, too young to understand the situation, manages to lock her little brother in a cupboard "for his own safety" so that he is not part of the transportation. Much of the ensuing tension in the film rests on the question of whether she will be able to escape and if she will succeed in being reunited with her brother. The drama is intercut with a modern day thread: Julia Jarmond, an American journalist, married into a well-heeled and highly respectable Parisian family, is tasked to produce an article on the Vél d'Hiv. In the process, she discovers that her father-in-law grew up in the very apartment from which Sarah's family was transported, and which her architect husband is "doing up" prior to moving there with her and their daughter Zoe. Julia's growing sense of disquiet and preoccupation with the tragic events she is uncovering begin to affect her relationship with her husband, and her attitude to life.

This is a story about issues of responsibility and guilt, and how these continue to blight – or transform positively – people's lives into future generations. The book raises the question which polarises people: is it better to draw a line on the past and move on or can one only be whole when one has confronted traumatic events, even if the price is that one is permanently changed as a result? I feel that this important aspect was somewhat blurred in the film. For instance, the wrangling between Julia's relatives and their different views on whether or not one should bury the past is largely missing from the film.

I find Julia's husband Bertrand a more convincing character than in the book, although older and less irresistibly attractive than I had pictured. Julia herself seems more likeable whereas in the book she came across as over-emotional, self-absorbed and even selfishly thoughtless in the way she acts impulsively, keeping and breaking confidences on a whim – although all this is of course necessary to the story.

In short, this comes recommended as a well-made, totally absorbing, shocking but "life-affirming" film.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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