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August 15, 2011

Brendan Simms considers the morality of remembering - and forgetting: Sarah's Key - Gilles Paquet-Brenner

Posted by Brendan Simms

Sarah's Key
Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner
certificate 12A, 2010

You know that something interesting is in the offing when the former French President Jacques Chirac - otherwise better known for the scandals which dogged his tenure - is portrayed in a positive light shortly after the start of a major box office film. The speech in question is his famous 1995 condemnation of the role of French gendarmes and civil servants in the round-up of French Jews, prior to their deportation and murder. To be sure the subject of collaboration had been extensively aired in controversial films such as Marcel Ophuls's Le Chagrin et la Pitie (1969), and by the path-breaking work of two North American historians on Vichy, Robert Paxton and Michael Marrus, but this was the first time that a representative of the government had acknowledged the responsibility of organs of the French state in the Final Solution. At around the same time, thanks to the iconoclastic biography of Pierre Pean, the French public began to wake up to the way in which their veteran socialist president Francois Mitterand had not only been close to collaborationists during the war but had also conspired to protect them long after it was over.

Sarah's Key (directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner) is the second of two films this summer on the subject; it was preceded by Rose Bosch's The Round-up in June.

Sarah's Key operates on two levels. It is the story of a young Jewish girl - Sarah (an excellent Melusine Mayance) - who is deported with her parents to the infamous Parisian holding camp of the Velodrome d'Hiver, the indoor winter cycling track, where in July 1942 thousands of Jews were held pending their departure for the rural transit camps, and ultimately to Auschwitz and other concentration camps.

Making a split-second decision, Sarah persuades her mother to lock her young brother in the closet, hoping to return later; she takes the key with her, and holds on to it for the rest of her life. When her father appears, he bitterly reproaches Sarah for having left the boy behind. Soon, she is separated first from him and then from her mother as they are deported and subsequently murdered. She escapes from the camp, is taken in by kindly French peasants - the Dufaures - and makes her way back to Paris as soon as she can to rescue her brother.

This story is unravelled by the American journalist Julia Jarmond, played to perfection by Kristin Scott-Thomas. Some way into the film we learn that her brother died in the closet, either through suffocation or starvation, before Sarah could reach him. By then another family, the gentile Tezacs, had moved in.

Holding the two strands of the story together is the fact that Julia is married to Bertrand Tezac (Frederic Pierrot) the grandson of that new tenant. Their relationship is already under pressure due to the fact that her architect husband is more committed to making money than to her, and wants her to abort their unborn second child. Julia becomes obsessed with the story of Sarah and when she discovers the connection between her and her in-laws, she demands answers.

It turns out that old Tezac had done his best to help Sarah when she burst through the door looking for her brother, and had sent money to the Dufaures to help her for many years afterwards. He had never said a word to his own family, so that with the exception of Bertrand's father ((Michel Duchaussoy) who had been in the house at the time, they were all in the dark, especially her husband's elderly aunt Mame (Gisele Casadesus), who only had the pleasantest memories of her childhood home. In the rest of the film, Julia tracks Sarah's subsequent story from her sheltered adolescence on the Dufaure farm, through her sudden emigration to the United States, her subsequent marriage to an American and her death in a car crash in 1967.

One of the films targets is clearly French complicity in the holocaust. The family is arrested by French police in their characteristic French uniforms; the Jews are brutally treated throughout, beaten with rifle-butts and hosed down with freezing water. There are many petty acts of meanness, such as when a policeman stamps on Sarah's hand, or when a random woman tells the Jewish deportees beneath her window that they "had it coming to them", or when a sly neighbour tries to help the police find Sarah's brother. It is only about half-way through the film that we encounter any Germans at all. At the same time, Sarah's Key eschews blanket indictment of a whole nation. There are plenty good Frenchmen too: the man who remonstrates with the woman shouting abuse at the Jews, the policeman who lets starving Sarah keep an apple and later helps her to escape, the Tezacs who do what they can, and of course the Dufaures, good Samaritans who after some initial hesitation, take Sarah in.

What really drives the film, though, is something else: survivor's guilt. Sarah is stricken at having left her brother behind - when she might have escaped with him together from the camp - and perhaps tormented even more by the fact that she might not have been driven to escape, and thus survive, had she not wanted to rescue him. All this is inferred and stated by others rather than by the adult Sarah, who maintains a melancholy and enigmatic silence. She ultimately commits suicide by driving straight at a lorry. There is no happy end - neither for her nor for her brother; we are left with no uplifting message. All this is portrayed sensitively and persuasively, in a way which is honest rather than just depressing, profoundly sad without degenerating into a tear-jerker.

The gentiles, too, suffer from survivor's guilt which they deal with through concealment. Traditionally, this phenomenon has been cinematically portrayed as a matter of confronting a past denied by perpetrators, for example in Das schreckliche Maedchen (The Nasty Girl, 1990), a film about uncovering the Nazi period in Passau, or in the film version of Brian Moore's The Statement (starring Michael Caine and Tilda Swinton, 2003), which is based on the case of the notorious French collaborator Paul Touvier who escaped justice for decades after the war with the complicity of the authorities.

There are elements of this here, especially in the rather obvious symbolism of the key, which will unlock the secrets of the past, and in the stench which emanates from Sarah's decomposing brother in the closet before it is flung open.

In general, however, the film suggests that concealment is not always bad or at least conducted in bad faith. Old Tezac, for example, wanted to shield his daughter from a terrible story for which he and she bore no responsibility, and his son Eduard later tries to spare his sister the details as long as possible. Likewise, Sarah does not emerge from the war determined to embrace her Judaism, but to erase it; as her husband gently explains, she associated her religion and race with mortal danger. Sarah did this so effectively that not even her baptised son (played by Aidan Quinn), whom Julia tracks down, knew of his Jewish origins. For this reason, Zionists will not like the film one bit, but she had good cause to act as she did.

Moreover, if concealment is not always bad, then exposure is not always good. The Tezacs have their lives turned upside down by the revelations, which reach even Mame's tender ears, and the association is so unbearable that the apartment is quickly put up for sale. Her marriage collapses, not just as a result of her investigations, admittedly. Even Sarah's son says that his whole life has been a "lie". Julia is unrepentant: the truth is the truth, she tells the Tezacs, even if it is unpleasant. We wonder if Sarah had lived, and Julia had succeeded in tracking her down, would she have wanted her story told then? Would Julia have had the right to tell it regardless? On these and so many other questions, the film maintains a fascinating ambivalence.

None of this means that scholars should not pursue the truth. It does mean that contemporaries may have their own valid reasons for concealing it.

The author thanks Dr James Carleton Paget for discussing this article with him.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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