“France, home of the Enlightenment and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, land of welcome and asylum, France committed that day the irreparable. Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners.’ Jacques Chirac, 16th July 2005
At times it feels like you need only scratch the surface of human history to discover a mass of atrocities, genocides and equally terrifying, brutal injustices. It’s a subject that has been taken on by directors and writers before and most certainly shall be again in the future, in an effort to remind us about the depths to which humanity can sink and to optimistically gear us to ensure its prevention in the future.
For those, such as myself, who had never heard of the “Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv” before now. On 16th – 17th July 1942, in Paris, an estimated 13000 foreign Jews were arrested and incarcerated for 5 days with no food, water or sanitary facilities in the overcrowded, overheated Vélodrome D’Hiver, before being sent on to extermination camps. Remarkably, this wasn’t undertaken by the German occupiers, but Paris’ own police force under the Vichy regime. The arrests we restricted to foreign Jews, preventing the embarrassment of the police deporting their own countrymen. Children under 16 were included to alleviate the government of responsibility of thousands of orphans. The codename for the operation was “Spring Breeze.”
This is a tale which remained largely buried. The reinstated French Republic accepted no responsibility until Chirac’s public apology in 2005. Ironically, on the site of the Vélodrome today sits a building belonging to the French Ministry of the Interior.
There must be a yearning need lingering in the air then, to come to terms with these happenings. This year we have seen the release of two films on this same subject. First with Rose Bosch’s The Round Up, followed now by Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s offering in his dramatisation of Tatiana de Rosnay’s bestselling novel, Sarah’s Key. The former presented us with a broader sequence of events, Sarah’s Key however, utilises the powerful scenario as a backdrop and focuses on the plight of one individual in order to roughly grab the heartstrings and play them like a violin.
Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) hides her younger brother, Michel, in a concealed wardrobe in order to save him from being arrested by the policemen hammering on their family’s apartment door. As she and her parents are jostled into the Vélodrome, she takes with her Michel’s promise that he will remain hidden and the key to his release. The narrative switches between this tale and that of Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) in 2009. Julia is an American reporter living in France. Whilst writing an article on the Vel d’Hiv round up, she stumbles upon the revelation that the apartment which has belonged to her husband’s family for 60 years, into which they are about to move, was commandeered from the Starzynski’s during that infamous July. So begins her investigation into the fate of Sarah and her brother.
The director’s role is summed up nicely by a line uttered by a holocaust researcher whom Julia meets. He describes his job as “Getting away from figures and statistics, to give a face and reality to each of these lives.” Although Sarah’s story is a fictional one, it stands for the thousands of tales that must exist like it. Many are unlikely to be told due to the truth being lost with its protagonists, being buried or denied to us through the silence of those who witnessed it.
We are spared the brutal portrayal of violence that we have come to expect from films in this particular vein such as Schindler’s List or Chuan Lu’s City of Life and Death. The human story alone, being enough to leave audiences stunned. We see as the 13000 did with shaky handheld shots in the midst of crowds being herded into the stadium, or as mothers and children are forcibly pulled apart.
Although the scenarios of both time periods are undoubtedly well written and Kristin Scott Thomas is predictably in good form, the sheer gravity of the 1942 happenings simply make the characters’ dilemmas in 2009 seem petty and they wax pale in comparison. Perhaps this was the director’s intention, but there’s the feeling that these sequences get in the way and break the haunting, dramatic tension of the tale we’re really interested in. However, they serve their purpose in the latter portions of the film when we are presented with the inevitable effects that certain ripples have created.
That aside it is a stunning film, allowing us to connect to the individuals caught up in the whirlwind of injustice without getting entangled in politics or the blame game. Although the hope and relief of survival feature strongly, Paquet-Brenner reminds us that the scars and guilt that remain in the aftermath of such events can hang equally as heavy as a death sentence.