The man who un­locked France’s Holo­caust his­tory

Di­rec­tor Gilles Pa­quet-bren­ner has a per­sonal rea­son to recre­ate the hor­rific wartime round-up of Parisian Jews

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Entertainment - BYTOMSEYMOUR

FOR FRANCE, the Vel d’Hiv roundup on 16 July, 1942, has been buried in un­wanted his­tory for al­most 70 years. Now, two French direc­tors have forced their coun­try fi­nally to con­front the dark morn­ing that saw 13,000 French cit­i­zens of Jewish her­itage rounded-up and packed into the Vel d’Hiv Win­ter Velo­drome in the 15th Ar­rondisse­ment of Paris, be­fore be­ing sent east to in­tern­ment camps and on to the Nazi death camps. First there was Rose Bosch’s sear­ing pe­riod drama The Round Up (2010), and now Gilles Pa­quet-Bren­ner has given us Sarah’s Key, an adap­tion of Ta­tiana de Ros­nay’s best-sell­ing, di­vi­sive novel.

While The Round Up re­mains a film rooted firmly in the past, Sarah’s Key shifts be­tween the hor­rific events of the Sec­ond World War and the present day, prob­ing at how the past can weigh on the gen­er­a­tions that sur­vived — or were sim­ply wit­ness to — the Holo­caust.

First we meet 10-year-old Sarah (Mélu­sine Mayance) who, when the po­lice ar­rive to de­port her dis­traught fam­ily, locks her lit­tle brother in a cup­board. She closely guards the key, try­ing at ev­ery step of her aw­ful jour­ney to re­turn and re­lease him.

We are then taken to the present day where Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Ju­lia (Kristin Scott Thomas) is writ­ing an ar­ti­cle on the round-up, be­fore re­al­is­ing she has an in­ti­mate per­sonal con­nec­tion to Sarah and her fam­ily. It leads her to ob­sess over the fate of Sarah as her own fam­ily life crum­bles around her.

Di­rec­tor Gilles Pa­quet-Bren­ner has per­sonal rea­sons for mak­ing the film. He lost mem­bers of his own fam­ily to Vel d’Hiv, and grew up dis­mayed at his na­tive coun­try’s un­will­ing­ness to face up to such a vis­ceral scar on its na­tional con­science. “The story res­onated with my own fam­ily his­tory,” he says.

“I’m of Jewish ori­gin and the men in my fam­ily were vic­tims [of the round-up]. My grand­fa­ther, a Ger­man Jewish mu­si­cian who had set­tled in France, was de­nounced by some French peo­ple and died shortly af­ter be­ing sent to the camps.

“My mother told me that story for the first time while I was in pre-pro­duc­tion for the film. Cer­tain things resur­faced. Ob­vi­ously, I wasn’t around when my grand­fa­ther was de­ported, but I saw how it had af­fected my grand­mother and my mother and her sis­ters. The book brought that back to me — the liv­ing who have to learn to live with the dead.

“I pay tribute to him in the film through the char­ac­ter of the vi­o­lin­ist who has a ring con­tain­ing poi­son so he alone can de­cide when he dies.”

Given this highly per­sonal con­nec­tion with his sub­ject, the urge must have ex­isted to ren­der the story in moral ex­tremes — to show Jews as vic­tims and the French peo­ple as ret­i­cent or will­ing Nazi scions. But Pa­quet-Bren­ner was led by the novel to cre­ate a film of shades, of peo­ple both self­ish and giv­ing, good and bad.

“I was daz­zled by de Ros­nay’s plot, which ex­plores the grey ar­eas that few films deal with – like the attitude of reg­u­lar peo­ple dur­ing the roundup – that were not framed in terms of col­lab­o­ra­tors and re­sis­tance fight­ers. The silent ma­jor­ity averted their eyes and tried to save their skins. Some didn’t doany­thing­wron­gand­don’tfee­lat all guilty. Oth­ers be­come heroes al­most against their will.

“We’re not in a good-ver­su­sevil sce­nario — we have the facts and the con­se­quences. We’re miles away from the usual short­cuts and sim­pli­fi­ca­tions.”

Recre­at­ing and im­mor­tal­is­ing his­tory, he says, “ter­ri­fied him,” but the care and at­ten­tion­with­whichPa­que­tBren­ner has recre­ated Paris of 1942, and in par­tic­u­lar the in­fa­mous Win­ter Velo­drome where the Jews were sent to wait for de­por­ta­tion to the camps, is ar­rest­ing.

Keep­ing CGI and spe­cial ef­fects to an ab­so­lute min­i­mum, we see the velo­drome purely from the per­spec­tive of the deliri­ous Sarah. “I pre­pared for the scene by meet­ing sur­vivors whose rec­ol­lec­tion were of the con­stant sti­fling heat, noise, smell and teem­ing crowds.

“I wanted au­di­ences to get a sense of the vast­ness of the velo­drome with­out be­ing too demon­stra­tive. I was wary of dig­i­tal ef­fects that let you do what­ever you want, some­times at the ex­pense of re­al­ism. Ev­ery shot in the velo­drome is from Sarah’s point of view.” It was, he says, an or­deal to shoot. “At first, I couldn’t cap­ture the essence of what I was wit­ness­ing — the bar­bar­ity of it — and I started to get wor­ried and frus­trated. Grad­u­ally, I moved the cam­era closer and I asked the cam­era­man to go in among the crowd, even if it meant the ex­tras bump­ing into him or jostling him. He took some knocks but in five takes we had cap­tured the chaos as you see it on screen.”

Fit­tingly, Sarah’s Key was the first fea­ture film to shoot at the Holo­caust Me­mo­rial in Paris. To do so, Pa­quet-Bren­ner ac­knowl­edges, con­sti­tuted a risk.

He says: “We could so eas­ily get drawn into some­thing po­lit­i­cal,” he says. “The man Ju­lia meets in the mu­seum sums up his mis­sion as, ‘get­ting away from fig­ures and sta­tis­tics to give a face and re­al­ity to each of these lives’. Those words de­fine my un­der­ly­ing aims with the film. Un­til now, films about the Holo­caust have stuck close to his­tory with a cap­i­tal H. That’s un­der­stand­able and in­dis­pens­able, but I didn’t feel com­fort­able with that.

“It’s been done so many times and, to my eyes, Schindler’s List just can’t be bet­tered. So I won­dered how I could make my mod­est con­tri­bu­tion, and what I hit upon was try­ing to make peo­ple feel the tragedy by mak­ing it pal­pa­ble, so that au­di­ences would feel in con­tact with the events. Kristin’s char­ac­ter Ju­lia is Amer­i­can and non-Jewish, so Sarah’s story and the Holo­caust is not her story, but in­di­rectly it touches her. It could hap­pen to any­body.“

‘Sarah’s Key’ is re­leased in cin­e­mas na­tion­wide to­day

Kristin Scott Thomas plays an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist in Sarah’s Key


Gilles Pa­que­tBren­ner: “We’re miles from the usual short­cuts and sim­pli­fi­ca­tions”

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