“Sarah’s Key” is the story of both Sarah Starzynski, French victim of the Nazi holocaust, and Julia Jarmond, Parisian journalist who investigates Sarah’s story for both political and personal reasons.
Julia and her husband are moving into his family apartment, which she learns had been confiscated from a Jewish family during the war. This fact dovetails perfectly with a story she’s investigating for work, the anniversary of the 1942 roundup of French Jews during World War II, and she realizes that her family has indirectly benefited from Nazi war crime. She decides to try to find out more about the family, the Starzynskis, as well as learn what happened to them after the roundup.
It doesn’t take long for Julia to find out that the family was sent to Vel’ d’Hiv, a velodrome, where they were held in miserable conditions until they were separated and put on trains to leave France. As the family was rounded up, though, young Sarah had the presence of mind to hide her little brother in a secret closet, and she still holds the key. Thus, she’s forced to try to escape and hurry back to Paris to rescue her brother.
Julia continues to investigate, learning that her elderly father-in-law witnessed as a child the scene when Sarah arrived at her old home, and never forgot it. But that’s not the end of the mystery. Julia wants to know if Sarah survived the war and if so what happened to her afterward, and even though her fascination with Sarah’s story puts further strain on her troubled marriage, she presses forward with her investigation.
In the end Julia finds out exactly what happened to Sarah, but doing so changes her own life and the lives of people who knew Sarah. The film forces us to see that knowing our own histories matters, and that the effects of war continue long beyond a declaration of peace. The ending was a bit maudlin, in my opinion, but the powerful scene when Sarah returns to her old home was not just almost too much to bear but something I am unlikely to forget. As Julia says, “When a story is told, it is not forgotten.”
Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays Julia, and Melusine Mayance, who plays Sarah, were both strong, neither overplaying their parts despite facing horrors that people would rather forget. The film was directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner in 2010, and most of it is in French with subtitles.