Sarah’s Key Starring Kristin Scott Thomas

By Jeff Farr

“Sarah’s Key,” directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, centers on the tragic Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup of July 1942, in which French police colluded with the Nazis to arrest thousands of Paris Jews. The prisoners, among them many children, were held in inhumane conditions in a stadium before being transported to the camps and, for most of them, eventual extermination.

This is an appalling history that France has been loath to remember. It was not until 1995 that the country acknowledged its support of the massacre. Jacques Chirac’s apology speech is revived in this film, which features a vivid, most disturbing reenactment of the roundup.

The Starzynski family is caught off guard by the arrests. When the police arrive at their flat, 10-year-old daughter Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) makes the impulsive decision to lock her younger brother in a closet for his safety. Sarah and her parents are taken away as she clutches the key to the closet door, hoping to return as soon as possible to free her little brother.

This sequence effectively captures how quick things can change when the world goes crazy and what far-reaching ramifications small moments can have on people’s lives and, in fact, on history. In a memorable later sequence, a camp guard’s split-second decision to do the right thing completely changes the course of two children’s lives.

At the heart of this film is the wonderful impulse of a child to save another child. But in the world of “Sarah’s Key,” a child’s sincerity can lead to unimaginable horror thanks to chance and the insanity of the adult world surrounding her.

Sarah’s dramatic escape from prison camp and her long-cherished return to Paris to find her brother take up a good chunk of this film. Paquet-Brenner is strongest with the child actors, letting us see the Holocaust from their point of view with great attention to detail.

When an old man informs other Jews in transport to the camps that he has poison in his ring and that “nobody else can choose when I die,” we feel the gravity of the statement through Sarah. She is experiencing the worst of the world, horrors that she has never known before—and of course should never have had to see at such a young age.

Sarah’s story is interspersed with the modern-day story of a woman journalist, Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is remodeling the very same apartment that once housed the Starzynskis. Julia is working on a feature on the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup and starts to suspect that the apartment may have a direct connection to this past.

When Julia learns of the former tenants and finds that Sarah and her brother are not on record as having died in the camps, she becomes obsessed with finding out their fates. In the meantime, she finally becomes pregnant after years of trying and her marriage starts to fall apart because she wants to keep the baby.

Although this half of the film benefits from the investigative drive, it ultimately cannot keep pace with the Sarah arc. Some of the contemporary scenes, especially those of editorial meetings where Julia’s young counterparts need to be lectured about the roundup, have an unnatural, staged feel.

Paquet-Brenner’s attempts to bring in current issues like the ongoing economic crisis never get developed much. All in all, the World War II story feels realer and fresher than Julia’s journey.

Scott Thomas, however, now fifteen years down the road from her breakthrough in “The English Patient” (1996), looks fantastic and keeps the film afloat despite its weaker moments with her regal bearing. Even when Pacquet-Brenner ups the melodrama in unconvincing ways, she remains for the most part convincing.

This is overall a sturdy, admirable, and moving effort from Paquet-Brenner. It is likely to be compared to Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader” (2008) for its similar subject matter and past-and-present structure, but “Sarah’s Key” makes a unique contribution with its painful but needed focus on the child’s perspective on war.


Julia Jarmond – Kristin Scott Thomas

Sarah Starzynski – Mélusine Mayance

Jules Dufaure – Niels Arestrup

Bertrand Tezac – Frédéric Pierrot


A Weinstein Company release.

Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner.

Written by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and Serge Joncour.

Produced by Stéphane Marsil.

Cinematography, Pascal Ridao.

Editing, Hervé Schneid.

Original Music, Max Richter.

Running time: 111 minutes.