Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sarah's Key

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (2 ½ Stars) Fr Dennis (3 ½ Stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert’s review -

Sarah’s Key (directed and cowritten by Gilles Paquet-Brenner along with Serge Joncour based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay) is a French-English language film (appropriately subtitled) about an American-born journalist Julia Darmond (Kristen Scott Thomas) living in Paris with her French husband Bertrand Tezac (Frédéric Pierrot) and their daughter, about 12-13 years old.  In the midst of writing about the 60th anniversary of the infamous Vel' d'Hiv Roundup of Paris’ Jews during the Nazi occupation, she discovers that the apartment that she and her husband inherited from her husband’s parents and were in the process of remodeling had belonged to a young Jewish family, the Starzynskis, prior to the round-up.  Investigating further, she discovers that while parents, Mme and M. Starzynski (played by Natasha Mashkevich and Arben Bajraktaj) had subsequently died in the Holocaust, their two children 12-year old Sarah (played by Mélusine Mayance) and 4 year old Michel (played by Paul Mercier) never appeared on any deportation list and therefore could have survived.

What to do?  With Julia’s mother-in-law very ill in an assisted living facility, she tactfully broaches the matter with her father-in-law Édouard (played by Michel Duchaussoy) who tells her a part of the story.  He had been a young boy when his family had moved into the apartment sometime soon after the Starzynskis had been deported and, yes, 12-year old Sarah, along with and older French peasant couple had come back to the apartment some time after that, with Sarah hysterically screaming for her brother – Just prior to their deportation, Sarah had hidden and locked her little brother in a false compartment behind a wall BUT COULD NOT COME BACK TO GET HIM OUT WHEN THE REST OF THEM WERE TAKEN AWAY BY THE AUTHORITIES. 

The movie’s about the repercussions of this 60+ year old secret playing out in the lives of several families to the present day. 

I’m from a central European (mostly Czech) background.  So I too grew-up with the ghosts of Hitler and Stalin being persistent if unwelcome guests at pretty much every family gathering when I was young.  So I know something of historical tragedy fatigue.

Still, this is a French take on a truly awful chapter in our shared history.  Each culture has a need for a national catharsis, and each culture has something to offer to others through its stories and its willingness (or unwillingness) to face the past.  The particular horror in this story was first that it was the French police who carried out the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup of Paris’ Jews (at the German occupiers’ behest) and second that there were French families who benefited from the confiscations.  Still these stories/tragedies with local variations played-out across Europe to this day.

[A recent Czech take (lighter but its way similarly challenging) on the Nazi Occupation / Holocaust years was a movie called Musíme si Pomáhat, which played with English subtitles under the title Divided We Fall but the title translates better to the plea, "We have to help each other," about three acquaintances, one ethnic-Czech, one ethnic (Sudeten) German and one Jewish living on the same apartment block in Prague during the years surrounding the war.  Did the three help each other?  Could they have done more?  How well did the country as a whole do?  And is there some shame that the _only_ one of the three who'd be left on that block today would probably be the ethnic-Czech?  Again, each country/ethnicity has its stories to tell and its own shame to exorcise.]

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