On 16 & 17 July 1942, French police in occupied Paris rounded up over 13,000 Jews in what has become known as the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Vel’ d’Hiv is short for Velodrome d’Hiver which is an indoor bicycle racetrack where the Jewish families were taken awaiting transport to internment camps and then finally Auschwitz. In a filmed adaptation of Tatiana De Rosnay’s novel of the same name, Sarah’s Key concerns one Jewish family, specifically the daughter, as they are rounded up and sent off for execution.
Sarah Starzynski (Melusine Mayance) looks to be around nine or ten years old when the policemen show up at their family’s apartment and demand they pack very lightly because they are being collected up to be taken to the Velodrome. The police know there are two parents and two children; however, they do not find Sarah’s younger brother, who is around four or five years old, because she has locked him in a bedroom closet to avoid arrest. Thinking they will return soon, Sarah gives him a glass of water and makes him promise not to leave his hiding place until she comes back for him.
Fast forward to present day. Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a journalist writing an article about how current French youth have no idea what the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup is. As she begins to dig into history, she uncovers a surprising amount of coincidences of how her husband’s family was connected to the Starzynski family. These coincidences set up the film’s mystery, what happened to Sarah and her little brother? Julia makes it her business to find out even though her relationships with her husband and daughter begin to suffer for it.
Sarah’s Key is shot just like chapters in a book; 1942 scenes alternate with present day interruptions. Unfortunately, this style destroys any flow the film has achieved and abruptly switches gears on the audience. This is especially true when the story jumps from the past to the present. Compared to some of the nightmare scenes from the Velodrome and the internment camp, the present day sequences are trite, insignificant, and sometimes just silly. Events happen to Julia affecting her and her family and the audience does not particularly care because they are still stuck back in a 1942 mindset begging to find out what happens to Sarah next? This back and forth usually works in novel format, but on screen, a more linear approach would have helped its narrative structure.
The film aims to educate its audience and even has a chorus of young staffers ask what the Vel d’Hiv was and then debate what they would have done if it was happening to them. Sarah Starzynski is an excellent use of a fictional character to explain just what happened in July 1942 and emphasize the role that ordinary French citizens had in the affair. Jacques Chirac is shown on TV in the film in 1995 finally apologizing for the state’s role in the Vel d’Hiv Roundup. Unfortunately, the current scenes with Julia interacting with her family and sleuthing around after the truth do not hold up equally with Sarah’s scenes. This creates an unequal yet important film nonetheless.