World War two film number 1: Sarah’s Key


Predominantly in French with English subtitles.

Adaptation of the novel, “Elle s’appelait Sarah”, (“Her Name Was Sarah”) by Tatiana de Rosnay

Link to the official trailer:

IMDB Storyline by Jeff Mellinger: One of the darkest moments in French history occurred in 1942 Paris when French officials rounded up over 10,000 Jews and placed them in local camps. Eventually over 8,000 were sent off to German concentration camps. As 10-year old Sarah and her family are being arrested, she hides her younger brother in a closet. After realizing she will not be allowed to go home, Sarah does whatever she can to get back to her brother. In 2009, a journalist named Julia is on assignment to write a story on the deported Jews in 1942. When she moves into her father-in-law’s childhood apartment, she realizes it once belonged to the Strazynski family, and their daughter Sarah.

This is not a film about fighting, battles, guns, and soldiers. This is a film about how the war affected a normal girl. Much like the youthful reporters in this film, I has not heard of the Vel’ d’Hiv round up in July of 1942. I had heard accusations of French complicity to Nazi activity but had no knowledge of its reality. The film highlights the lack of knowledge of my generation on this, and the wider issues of World War 2, so I feel perhaps it has been a good place to start. Although the smug knowledge of Kristin Scott Thomas, in the journalist Julia’s role, can be somewhat off-putting to someone questing to know more.

The film flips between the past and the present coherently for the first half of the film. The second half of the film regrettably leaves the much more compelling past to focus on the affect of Julia’s increasing knowledge on her life. I shall not attempt to flit between the two as the film does.

The first scenes of 1942 show two young children playing happily in the bedroom of their apartment in the Marais area of Paris. In a stark contrast, the following scenes show French officers come to ‘round the up’ the family, compounded by watching it from the young girl’s, Sarah’s perspective. The actress playing her is extraordinary, a fantastic talent well portraying the true strength, courage and quick thinking employed when attempting to save her brother from their fate.

The round up itself, and the subsequent few days in the Vel’ d’Hiv take up a disappointing small time element of the film. The horrors of sharing that space, without adequate sanitation, are alluded to, but too quickly. I wonder if it is because I am interested particularly in learning about the round up, that I feel it is too small a part.

The film well portrays the increasing reactions of normal people around the Strazynski family, and as a viewer, you start to gain a sense of foreboding and expectation of the worst. I can’t imagine what it would be like to observe those changes in people around me in the present.  The woman who commits suicide in the Vel’ d’Hiv, the man who carries poison in his ring so he can choose when he dies, the woman who cuts her own mouth open to escape. It must make you question constantly whether you should be doing the same, increasing your chances, or reducing your future difficulties. But how?

As they are moved to the concentration camps, Sarah comes down with a fever. Her mother desperately asks for help as she lays her down, ‘My child has a fever can anyone help?’ Nobody answers and people look the other way. The fear people must have felt to stand up and help others is palpable. You can’t blame them, this situation was so alien to them, it is so much easier to stay quiet. This idea is mirrored when Sarah and a friend escape the camp and beg for help at a small farmhouse. The elderly couple shun them in fear of ‘trouble’. They stow away in their garden anyway as Sarah’s friend and fellow escapee is suffering from Diptheria. When the elderly couple see how ill she is, they take her inside where she eventually dies in their home. You can see the pain etched on their faces. They relent, and take Sarah in, to much danger to themselves. It seems once a stranger touched you in the war, you couldn’t turn your back. I wonder, how many children died from disease from exposure to poor sanitation and cramped conditions?

As the soldiers leave with the dead child, the elderly gentleman calls ‘Heil Hitler!’. The French soldier, stops, pauses, and repeats, ‘Heil Hitler’. This awkwardness at the salute, this pause and regret are just a small indication of the reluctance to engage with the Germans, but an acknowledgement that there is nothing to be done about it. ‘Heil Hitler.’

The elderly couple accompany Sarah on her quest to Paris for her brother and are with her when she discovers the reality of the horror because he kept his promise and remained in the close. They go on to adopt Sarah into their family and saved her from being one of the 76,000 Jews deported from France, showing how the courage of someone ordinary could save someone ordinary. It was that simple. Everyone had a choice to be extraordinary. The elderly couple are played beautifully. Hardly any dialogue passes between them, but a constant conversation with both of their eyes portrays the relentless agony they were enduring.

In the future, the film is much less likeable and the characters much less endearing. If the colleagues of Julia, Kristin Scott Thomas, are supposed to represent ‘the youth of today’ in their ignorance and disinterest in the truth, then I am ashamed to be banded in the same group as them.

As Julia delves deeper into the story of Sarah Strazynski, she feels increasingly alienated from her own life and marriage. She learns her husband’s parents moved in to the Strazynski apartment after the family were rounded up. This raises an interesting question of the morality of taking advantage of situations during the war. Were they right or wrong to move in there? Can you blame them? It seems the father ‘always did the right thing’, and they were not bad people, but they nevertheless profiteered from the round up of the Jews.

As Julia visits the Holocaust war memorial in Paris, the camera angle shows the depth and density of the names of the walls. Kristin Scott Tomas plays this scene impeccably, with the sadness etched on her face. We all know that feeling, as we learn about something and sorrow overwhelms us. It reminds me of the great Alan Bennett quote:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours”

The scene reminds me of that feeling when you’re reaching back through time and offering your condolences, and compassion to what happened in the past and as I watch this I start to feel the same. My sorrow starts to feel guilt ridden. Why should I feel sad? What right do I have to feel mournful when it was them this happened to not me? How does it really affect me? I don’t know but it does.

Sarah’s son, is clear when he meets Julia, ‘I don’t want to talk to you about this.’ By delving into world war two, we are intruding into people’s pasts, raising questions and exposing truths. Is the truth better out? Ultimately this film says yes, we should know the truth, this is the only way we will we be able to move on and start anew. It’s an interesting question I hope to dwell on with further films.

Ultimately, the modern part of the film dominates too much at the end of the film and isn’t strong enough to support Sarah’s story. What a shame and a disappointment.

The film as a whole raises various issues that deserve greater exploration and study:

  • The idea of good and bad- The majority of the guards are unfeeling, appearing to have lost their compassion. This could just be a cinematic tool to create a ‘baddie’ the girl must battle against. Or were they really like that? Perhaps they had to disconnect from their feelings in order to carry out their duties. Interestingly, the film takes this further and shows some soldiers who have a softer ‘good’ side, and allow their compassion to show, such as the guard in the concentration camp. Trying desperately to fulfil his duty, he tries to withhold fruit from the girls, but relents and lets Sarah have an apple. He tries to stop them escaping, but relents, when Sarah calls him by his name and recognises his previous kindness. Anonymity, it seems, is key to cruelty.
  • The theme of blame and guilt. Sarah locked her brother in the cupboard. At the time it seemed a wise and brave choice. But it led ultimately to an awful and lonely death. Her father screams with anguish when they find themselves in the Vel’ d’hiv, ‘Do you realise what you’ve done?’ Clearly in later life is she is usurped in the grief and self-blame and commits suicide as a young woman with a new family. Will I see more of the same? People who survived the atrocities but could not cope with the aftermath? Can you blame people for making a decision they thought was right in the moment?
  • Buildings holding their past and their memories. Can you live in a building that has such a past? Aren’t we all inhabiting buildings which have a past? I am currently sat in a Victorian terrace house in London. What went on here during the war? Would it matter to me?
  • What responsibility can we give to the generation that were there at the time? Julia’s character asks a pertinent question, ‘How do you know what you’d have done?’ Was it right or wrong to rent that apartment in august 42? Can you blame them?

Watching this film has raised as many questions about the process of what I am doing as it has about the process of what the French were doing in 1942 Paris. I can’t help asking the question, is it wrong to develop my knowledge of such an enormously important event on fictional accounts? Shouldn’t I read factual accounts of the tragedy? Then I remember. I have learnt facts, I have felt compassion. I have understood a little more about the difficulties faced by normal people, and ho the reacted. I have learnt. In my own way.

Would I recommend this film? Yes, but be prepared to be enamoured with the past and bored with the present. Mind you, I guess we can all be a bit like that anyway.

Favourite Quotes

The principle I apply to my work is to escape statistics to give a face and reality to each individual destiny (historian in the Holocaust War Memorial in Paris)



2 thoughts on “World War two film number 1: Sarah’s Key

  1. Great post Debbie –
    Interesting to hear your thoughts about split narratives – past and present. I felt the same about the treatment of the two times in The Reader. Perhaps it’s simply that the past is that much more immediate and compelling? The present also is usually concerned with looking backwards. Perhaps you’re right and the narrative should just focus on the heart of the story..
    Keep it up

  2. Hey, thanks for this Adam. I am not sure how I feel about split narratives on the whole. I normally quite enjoy a story which uses the present to assess the past- I definitely enjoyed it in the Reader so we are at odds on that one! But the present in this film just wasn’t unto scratch. It let down the rest of the story.

    Any suggestions for some other good films?


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