The Key Question

'Sarah's Key,' now showing in Israel, is one of the few attempts by French cinema to deal with the Holocaust. In an interview, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner tries to define when memory and memorialization become entertainment.

"I don't know what the situation is like in Israel, but I imagine that it's very different from the situation in Europe. In Europe, the young people, even the Jewish young people, are gradually moving away from the memory of the Holocaust, and to me, this kind of distancing from the past, especially from such a powerfully traumatic event like the Holocaust, is a dangerous thing. A lot of young people are too detached from history, in my view. This is why, when I read 'Sarah's Key' by Tatiana de Rosnay, I made up my mind to direct a movie based on the book."

This is what director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, 36, told me by telephone from Paris in February, after having read the book in French translation (the French title is "Elle s'appelait Sarah").

Kristin Scott Thomas in 'Sarah’s Key.'

In the same conversation, he added that he had a personal reason for making the film, now showing in Israel: His grandfather - a German-Jewish musician who had immigrated to France and believed he had thoroughly integrated there - was one of 13,000 Parisian Jews rounded up by the Gestapo on July 16, 1942 in a huge stadium in the 15th arrondissement, and sent from there to concentration camps. And he was not the only relative of his who was sent to the camps this way.

Paquet-Brenner is a third-generation descendant of Holocaust survivors, and when we talk about his movie, and I tell him that families in Israel mostly did not speak about the past, he admits that it was the same in his family.

"My grandmother, who survived the Holocaust, never spoke about losing the only man she ever loved," he says. "And I first heard the story of my grandfather from my mother, when I was at the height of the preparations to make 'Sarah's Key.'"

Paquet-Brenner agrees with me that France and French cinema have not yet dealt sufficiently with what happened in France during the time of the German occupation. He agrees that even the best of the films that depicted the collaboration between the French and the Germans during the war was made by a non-French director - the 1976 movie "Monsieur Klein," directed by Joseph Losey, who fled America for Europe in the wake of the McCarthy witch hunts. But he says the greater attention currently being given to the period by French cinema is a positive development.

When I express my aversion to Rose Bosch's 2010 film "The Round Up," a tendentious and sentimental depiction of the events of July 16, 1942, he elegantly avoids a direct response. "What attracted me to De Rosnay's book," he says, "is the way the book does not deal solely with the past, but reflects upon the past from the present. I feel that its significance lies in the way it shows how the memory of the past influences the present, and this is the main message I tried to convey in the movie; not just to tell what happened, but to depict how those events, which have been documented in other films before, continue to reverberate in the present."

Moral ambivalence

"Sarah's Key" takes place in two different time periods. In the present, the film tells the story of a non-Jewish American journalist named Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas ), who is writing an article for an American magazine about the deportation of French Jews in the summer of 1942. She is married to a French businessman, Bertrand Tezac (Frederic Pierrot ), who is renovating the apartment that belongs to his family in the Le Marais district of Paris, an area that was once heavily populated by Jews.

By chance, in a plot twist that might have seemed contrived but somehow does not thanks to the skill of the scriptwriter and the way it is revealed to us, Julia discovers that the apartment did in fact belong to a Jewish family that was deported in 1942. She starts to wonder just how this very nice apartment came into the possession of her husband's family. Her festering doubts begin to affect her attitude toward the apartment that she and her husband and their 11-year-old daughter are planning to move into, and also her feelings toward her husband and his family.

This part of the film, which raises the historical ethical questions that Julia has to grapple with following the discovery of the family background, is the more successful segment, written and directed in a more nuanced way than the other part of the movie. It presents the dilemmas Julia faces with a degree of moral ambivalence that adds heft to the film.

But the other part of the film also has its virtues. This is where the story of Sarah (played by Melusine Mayance, who was 10 at the time of filming) is told. Moments before the French police came and arrested her and her parents in the apartment that Julia is now renovating, she pushed her four-year-old brother Thomas into a closet in the bedroom, locked him inside and hid the key on her body. Her plan was to return home as quickly as possible to let her brother out, but of course things don't turn out the way the little girl expects. Our awareness, as viewers, that Sarah may have doomed her little brother to a horrifying death adds a level of gravity to the tale and gives rise to the moral and ideological connection between the two stories that make up Paquet-Brenner's film.

Paquet-Brenner says this connection is the other reason he wished to make a movie out of De Rosnay's book: "These are not just two stories. These are two stories that raise questions about doing the right thing. Despite the age difference between the little girl Sarah and Julia, who is an adult career woman, both have to deal with the implications of doing the right thing."

Throughout the movie, Sarah is forced to contend with her fears about what has happened to her brother. She promised to come back and let him out, but of course the circumstances do not allow her to do so. She is trapped with her family in the Parisian stadium, sent from there to a concentration camp and, and in her determination to return to the apartment where she fears her brother is still trapped in the closet, she manages to escape from it. In one scene, she finds shelter with a farmer, played by the wonderful veteran actor Niels Arestrup, who is not exactly thrilled to be helping a Jewish girl on the run from the Nazis, but still does so.

Julia has to face up to the deeds of her husband's family. Of course her husband is not guilty, for he was born long after they occurred; but Julia must decide if she wants to be a part of such a family and to live in an apartment that was acquired in sin. "If this were just a film that presented another story of what happened during the Holocaust, I wouldn't have been interested in making it," adds Paquet-Brenner. "I was eager to make the movie because it raises moral questions that have to do both with the memory of the past and with the influence of that past on the present in which the film is made.

"The moral-ideological dimension of the movie," he continues, "enabled me to avoid making a movie that is black and white; a movie in which the Jews are just the victims and the Germans and the French, who observe what is happening without doing anything about it, are the villains. I wanted to make a movie that is all made up of shades of gray."

You weren't worried about making a movie that in some way could serve as an indictment of the French and their conduct during the German occupation?

"I was definitely worried. I was also nervous about the whole issue of reconstructing the past, in the parts of the film that depict the assembling of the Jews in the stadium. I didn't want the scenes that take place in this location to become a big showpiece. I wanted us to see what happens through Sarah's eyes. The fact that the film focuses less on what happened and more on the moral implications of the event is what enabled me to evade this trap, which I could have fallen into. In the two stories that make up the film, I depict a morally ambivalent reality, and such a reality is never black-and-white, but always composed of shades of gray."

"Sarah's Key" is De Rosnay's tenth book, but the first she wrote in English. Paquet-Brenner says De Rosnay chose English because she wished "to distance herself from the place and culture in which the plot unfolds. It was also important to me for the movie not to speak in just a single language, but for different languages to be heard in it. The memory of the Holocaust is not confined to one place, but is a worldwide thing."

This is also one reason, Paquet-Brenner explains, that he chose Kristin Scott Thomas to play the lead role: "I chose her, first of all, of course, because of her talents as an actress, but also because she is bilingual. She's a British actress who appears in English-language British films and in French-language French films. In my movie, she actually plays an American journalist.

"Another thing I was careful about was to see that the past was always present within the present time. This was mostly accomplished through the way I designed the apartment, which I feel is another important character in the movie. When you look at the apartment and are exposed to what is revealed there in the course of the renovation - for example, when the old wallpaper is peeled off, the past is suddenly revealed and suddenly we are simultaneously in the present and in 1942. I wanted to convey this feeling to the viewers; a feeling that could cause one to shudder, and this unsettling feeling also penetrates Julia's life and shakes it up."

You've spoken admiringly of Kristin Scott Thomas. What about Melusine Mayance, who plays Sarah and is equally impressive?

"She's amazing. Without her, I don't think this movie would have been possible. She's mature for her age and I think that something of this maturity came into the character that she plays. She was 10 when we made the movie, a little girl, but she insisted on meeting a Holocaust survivor who was her age when the events depicted in the movie took place. I was awed by her determination. She's not a little girl who acts; she's an actress, and it's very rare to find children who are genuine actors. She had been in a few movies before 'Sarah's Key,' and she is totally professional. I was surprised by how knowledgeable she was about lighting and camera work and more."

Some pitfalls

"Sarah's Key" joins a host of movies made in recent years about the memory of the Holocaust. Although it is better than most of them, mostly because of the dryness with which large portions of it are told, it does not avoid many of the pitfalls facing movies that deal with this subject.

It used to be said that it was impossible to make movies about the Holocaust. In recent years, largely in the wake of Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," an increasing number of movies are being made about it. Weren't you concerned that your movie would have a melodramatic, even sentimental, aspect to it, like so many of the movies that deal with the Holocaust? What do you think about the memory of the Holocaust as a source of cinematic entertainment - for after all, every movie also seeks to entertain its viewers?

"I'm aware of this problem, and I was conscious of it throughout the making of 'Sarah's Key.' I still think that 'Schindler's List' is the best movie ever made about the Holocaust, and any attempt to compete with Spielberg's masterpiece is doomed to failure. But Spielberg's movie proved that movies can be made about the Holocaust, and a new generation of directors arose, a generation to which I belong, that believes that the best way to deal with this subject is from the personal angle. All through the making of 'Sarah's Key,' I tried to avoid melodrama, I tried to avoid sentimentality, and I hope that I succeeded most of the time. What do you think?"

Courtesy obligates me to avoid giving a direct answer to Paquet-Brenner's question. There are a few scenes in the movie that seem didactic and contrived, particularly toward the end, when Julia meets other characters connected to the story, including one played by Aidan Quinn (Paquet-Brenner says he chose him because his eyes resembled those of Melusine Mayance ). But on the whole, Paquet-Brenner has made a fine film, one that is mostly not embarrassing, and that in itself is an accomplishment.