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“When a story is told, it is not forgotten…”   — “Sarah’s Key” the movie

The Background: Vel d’Hiv Roundup

The story has to be told, because it is based on a historical event that has long been ignored. On July 16 and 17, 1942, the French police in Paris rounded up more than 13,000 Jews in Paris, among them 4,000 children, and confined them in the Velodrome d’Hiver (Winter Velodrome), an indoor bicycle racing track and stadium not far from the Eiffel Tower. There in the Velodrome the Jews were kept under French police guard for five days with no food and just one tap. They were subsequently sent to internment camps outside of Paris, where children were torn apart from their parents. Apart or together, they shared the same fate. From the internment camps, young and old alike were later transported by train to the Auschwitz extermination camp. The Velodrome, which was situated in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, has since been torn down but the event remains a dark page in France’s history.

The Vel d’Hiv roundup had been ignored for decades in the classrooms of the nation. Post-war French leaders from de Gaulle to Mitterrand had kept mum on the issue of France’s role in deporting Jews to the death camps. It was not until Jacques Chirac became president in 1995 that the French state accepted its official complicity, in particular, the Vel d’Hiv roundup. Here’s an excerpt of Chirac’s historical speech taken from a TIME magazine article:

France, homeland of the Enlightenment and of human rights, land of welcome and asylum; France, on that very day, accomplished the irreparable,” Chirac said in his speech, using the Vel d’Hiv roundup as a metaphor for all Vichy crimes. “Failing her promise, she delivered those she was to protect to their murderers.

A story based on this true event ought to be noticed. The French drama based on true accounts, “La Rafle” (“The Round Up”), was released in 2010 to a large audience in the country. And for us in North America, we have the novel Sarah’s Key (2007) and its movie adaptation (2010) to inform us of that horrific event and the imagined scenario of its impact on the lives involved.

(Spoiler Alert from here on.)

The Book

Written by Tatiana de Rosnay and published in 2007, the book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 120 weeks. It has sold 5 million copies world wide and been released in 38 countries. de Rosnay has published works in French. This is her first English language book.

The book weaves two stories together 60 years apart. 10 year-old Sarah Starzynski’s family is one of those being rounded up on July 16, 1942. On the spur of the moment, Sarah hides and locks her 4 year-old brother Michel in a cupboard in the wall of their bedroom, thinking there he will be safe until she comes back for him. It was horrific for her and her parents to find out later that they won’t be returning at all.

Sarah and her parents are kept in Vel d’Hiv in appalling conditions, only to be deported to an internment camp where she is separated from them. Her determination never wavers though in getting back home to let her brother out of the locked cupboard. She has kept the key, guarding it with her life.

Fast forward to 2002. Julia Jarmond, a U.S. expatriate married and working as a journalist in Paris, delves into the research of the Vel d’Hiv roundup for a magazine article commemorating its 60th anniversary. She is totally absorbed by the little-known event. What’s more, she finds out that the apartment that used to belong to her French husband’s grandparents and which is now under renovation for her to move in was the very home of Sarah and her family.

At the same time, Julia struggles with a personal dilemma. At 45, mother to 11 year-old Zoé, and after two miscarriages, Julia is excited to find out she is pregnant. Her husband does not share her sentiment however, pressing her to abort. The poignant story of Sarah inspires Julia’s decision as the story unfolds.

While I whole-heartedly admire the author for her intention to honor the victims of Vel d’Hiv and her eagerness to expose the atrocities afterwards, I have reservations about the literary quality judging from the style and structure of the book. At several points, I feel the writing redundant. And for a novel written for an adult readership, it gives me the feeling of being talked down to, told what to think and how to feel.

Structurally, it presents the two stories in alternating chapters. The shifting is abrupt as the chapters are only three pages long. This lasts till the middle of the book when the story of Sarah’s key comes to an end. That occurs when Sarah makes it back to her apartment and discovers the heart-wrenching horror. The rest of the book is the continuation of modern day Julia’s story, her persistence to discover Sarah’s trail after the war and dealing with her own personal dilemma. Compared to Sarah’s story, this latter part seems trivial and anti-climatic.

The Movie

One year after it premiered at the TIFF, I finally have the chance to see this movie as it is being screened only recently in one theatre here in town.

Screenwriter director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has gleaned the essence of the novel and tightened the plot in an engrossing way. By virtue of its form, the movie has the advantage of showing rather than telling.  It can condense paragraphs of words into a cinematic moment frozen in the mind’s eye. The film is captivating, telling the story with vivid and haunting images.

We see the recreated Vel d’Hiv and its appalling condition. We see a woman plunging to her death from a high level in the Velodrome, an apparent suicide. We see the horror of children torn away from their mothers in the internment camp. We see too the desperation of Sarah finally running up to her apartment, pounding on the door of the new family living there. We see her barging into her bedroom and unlocking the cupboard. And from inside there with the camera pointing out, we see the terror on Sarah’s face as she looks in. We hear her scream.

The storytelling is carried out by the excellent performance of the two main actors, Mélusine Mayance as Sarah and Kristin Scott Thomas (“I’ve Loved You So Long”, 2008) as Julia Jarmond. The structure of the plot limits young Sarah to only the first part of the film, albeit her portrayal is memorable, her unseen presence lingers through the movie.

Kristin Scott Thomas always delivers. Her role as the persistent journalist Julia is convincing and a pleasure to watch. Her cool demeanor conveys the fact that it takes intelligence and professionalism to find the truth as a journalist, and yet, once exposed, the truth can have the affective power to inspire and turn one’s life around. Scott Thomas has aptly portrayed this change.

Nevertheless, the weakness of the film lies in the lack of character development in the ‘minor’ roles. If given more depth, they can sharpen the conflicts and enhance the story. I’m thinking of Julia’s relationships with husband Betrand (Frédéric Pierrot, “I’ve Loved You So Long”, 2008) who insists on her abortion, and with her daughter Zoé (Karina Hin).

And since I’ve been looking for ‘intrusions of grace’ lately, there’s a scene here that is of note. It is not in the book, but screenwriter/director Paquet-Brenner has aptly created a poignant cinematic moment with it.  When Sarah and another girl are trying to crawl under a barbed wire to escape from the internment camp, they are caught by a guard. But upon the urgent appeal of Sarah, he softens. Using his bare hands to hold up the wire, he pushes the girls through. The camera then closes up on his bleeding hand, pierced by the barbs, an apt allusion. How we need these ‘intrusions of grace’ to shed a glimmer of hope amidst overwhelming darkness.

“Sarah’s Key” may well be one of those examples where the movie speaks more powerfully than its source material. If you are time-pressed, go for the cinematic rendition.

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To read more about the Vel d’Hiv roundup and related articles, click on the following links:

Behind the French Ruling on WWII Deportations of Jews“, TIME.

“Remembering the Vel d’Hiv” The Economist.

“Letters from Drancy” The Guardian.

“Vel d’Hiv Roundup” Wikipedia

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