It was one of the most shocking events of twentieth century French history. On July 19, 1942, at the behest of the Nazis, and in what would become known as "La Rafle du Vel d'Hiv" ("the police round-up in the winter velodrome"), more than 13,000 French Jews (including 4,000 children) were rounded up by members of the French police force and locked inside a velodrome in western Paris. From there, they were deported by rail to the concentration camps. It’s an event that was glossed over by the French government until 1995 when President Jacques Chirac finally acknowledged the State’s role in delivering "those it was protecting to their executioners" during the Vichy regime of 1942.
La Rafle has been touched upon in movies before, such as Joseph Losey’s Monsieur Klein (1976), but in the past 12 months, two major films have chosen to tackle the subject head-on.
The first, La Rafle, co-stars Jean Reno and Mélanie Laurent, and is a faithful retelling of the events of July 19 as seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy. The second, Sarah’s Key, uses a blend of fact and fiction to tackle the same subject matter.
Based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s best-selling novel, Sarah’s Key begins in modern day Paris when a journalist (Kristin Scott Tomas) moves into an apartment owned by her husband’s family, only to discover that it once belonged to a Jewish family, the Starzynskis, who were rounded up in La Rafle. The more that Scott Thomas finds out about the original family, the more uncomfortable the truths she uncovers for present day members of her family and indeed for modern day members of the Starzynski family.
The Sarah of the title refers to a 10-year-old girl (Mélusine Mayance) who was taken with her parents to the velodrome on July 19; the key in question belongs to the secret cupboard of the bedroom in which the little girl has hidden her younger brother in order to prevent him from being rounded up.
Sarah’s Key is a powerful and moving drama that has much to recommend it. Kristin Scott Thomas delivers yet another powerful performance in the main role, and she is matched, if not overshadowed, by an astonishing performance from young Mélusine Mayance. The events of 1942 are brilliantly recreated (kudos to production designer Françoise Dupertuis), whether it’s the stifling awfulness of the velodrome, or the misery inflicted upon the families as they were separated prior to deportation.
The film’s major flaw revolves around the modern story. While it’s interesting for the audience to examine the parallels between the two stories and join the historical dots, there’s no doubt that the narrative heart of the film involves Sarah's struggle to escape from her captors and return to the secret cupboard in time to liberate her younger brother. And it's all wonderfully carried on Mélusine Mayance's slender shoulders.