Although a fictional story, an adaptation of the 2006 novel Elle s’appelait Sarah by Tatiana De Rosnay, Sarah’s Key is still firmly based on a real-life incident. World War II was a time of many atrocities. In 1942, over 13,000 Parisian Jews were arrested and held in the Velodrome d’Hiver for five days with no food, water, or toilets before being taken to camps. While the Nazi’s were famous for meticulously documenting their misdeeds, the events at the Vel’ d’Hiv were largely unknown by those too young to remember them. Nonetheless, the entire incident remains a source of embarrassment for France.
It’s during those arrests in 1942 that Sarah’s Key begins. The eponymous Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) is 10 years old; the titular key is the one used by Sarah to hide her four year old brother Michel (Paul Mercier) in a hidden closet when the police arrive at the apartment. Sarah and her parents are taken to the Vélodrome d’hiver, leaving Michel alone, locked in the closet.
A stadium near the Eiffel Tower, the Vélodrome d’hiver had thousands of Jews crammed together, without sanitation, water, adequate food or medical facilities. Without dwelling at length on the horrors, the film is unsparing in its depiction. Those who survived the Vel’ d’Hiv are transported to a so-called “transit camp” at Beaune-la- Rolande, outside Paris. From there, they are eventually transported to Auschwitz. Through it all, Sarah remains single-minded in her determination to return to Paris and retrieve her brother. As such, she takes enormous risks to hold onto the key to the closet where she hid him. When she falls ill from a fever, only to awaken after three days to find that her parents have been transported without her, Sarah’s only thought is of escape. With the help of another girl named Rachel (Sarah Ber), and an encounter with a sympathetic guard, Sarah escapes into the French countryside. Eventually, she finds herself in the care of a farming couple, Jules and Geneviève Dufaure (Niels Arestrup and Dominique Frot), who will help Sarah and her key make their return to Paris. What happens next, I won’t reveal.
Skipping ahead to contemporary Paris and running parallel to Sarah’s young life, American journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott-Thomas) and her French husband Bertrand Tezac (Frederic Pierrot) are in the midst of renovating the same apartment, unaware of that tragic day. The couple has a teenage daughter, Zoé (Karina Hin), and Julia would like to have another child, but complications during her pregnancy with Zoé have made it difficult for her to conceive. Bertrand has not only accepted the fact that they only have one child; he’s embraced it.
Julia writes for a small magazine looking to stand out from the crowd. She decides to write about the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, something which her younger co-workers don’t even know about. Her mind fills with dread when she realizes the apartment she is about to move into was acquired just after the roundup. Bertrand’s grandparents moved into the apartment just a month after the Starzynski’s arrest, as was customary at the time.
Julia soon becomes obsessed with unlocking the secrets to the apartments past, and find a Starzynski descendant. By the time Julia meets a man who may be able to help her (Aidan Quinn), her own life is falling apart, and she’s not sure what questions to ask him.
Blessed with wonderful acting from all those involved, Sarah’s Key is an effecting drama. It tells a bittersweet story, pointing out the necessity of truth and pointing out the importance of learning history, no matter how painful the lesson may be.
While the 2.40:1 1080 p transfer isn’t perfect, it looks very good. Color quality is particularly impressive, with flesh tones and the deep hues of lush panoramas coming across with striking elegance. Detail is well maintained, and edge enhancement is minimal. There are elements of aliasing and banding to mention, as well as a few examples of compression artifacting in some of the movie’s darker moments, but overall, this presentation is a good one.
The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is a solid one. Dialogue is audible and clean throughout, and the movie’s l musical score fans out into surround channels utilizing full-bodied fidelity. Things stay front-and-center for the most part, but this lossless presentation still captures the movie’s original design appropriately.
English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles are available.
The following special features are included:
- The Making of Sarah’s Key (SD; 1.78:1, enhanced; 1:03:06): This is an informative and documentary that begins with the novel and proceeds through filming, although it does not include any sections on post-production. Early portions rely largely on interviews, whereas later sections use substantial production and rehearsal footage, much of it with the extras who filled out the scenes at the recreation of Vel’ d’Hivor the transit camp. The interview subjects include:
- novelist Tatiana De Rosnay
- writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner
- producer Stéphane Marsil
- publishers Héloise d’Ormesson and Gilles Cohen Solal (who are a fascinating pair of characters)
- supervisor of special effects Antonin Seydoux
- production designer Françoise Dupertuis
- actor Niels Arestrup
- actor Arben Bajraktaraj
*In French with English subtitles.