Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Based on the chilling novel by Tatiana de Rosnay which focuses on the 1942 Vel D’Hiv Round Up, Elle s’appelait Sarah manages to balance subtle horror with family ties.
Watching films about the Holocaust is usually a bad idea for me as I often end up as a blubbering mess by the end of it. However, Elle S’appelait Sarah (or Sarah’s Key) intrigued me: two stories of different lives weaving together – focused around one apartment.
Julia Jarmond (played by Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist living in Paris moves into the same apartment inhabited by the Starzynski family 60 years prior. Investigating the Vel d’Hiv round up of 1942, Jarmond discovers the story of Sarah who escaped the concentration camps in order to free her little brother from the cupboard she locked him when they were rounded up.
The beauty of Elle S’appelait Sarah lies in the delicacy in which it’s filmed. We do not see the majority of truly gruesome scenes: though it deals with death in a very matter of fact way. It also focuses on the kindness of strangers towards those in need. Sarah, teamed with her new friend Rachel, escape the camp thanks to one of the guards who helps them under the barbed wire, perhaps convinced by Sarah’s determination to free her brother from the closet. They come across an elderly couple who hide the two girls, until Rachel succumbs to her fever and dies shortly after being taken in. The elderly couple help Sarah find her way to Paris in order to save her brother.
We see how easily families can be torn apart in crisis. Not just literally as they were in the camps but also figuratively: Sarah’s parents – especially her father – chastise her for locking her brother in a cupboard in order to save him from the round up. Flashing forward 60 years and we see how the strain of what the apartment has become for Jarmond affects her relationship with her husband Bertrand Tezac (played by Frédéric Pierrot who you may also recognise as Jérôme from Les Revenants), whose family acquired the apartment shortly after the Starzynski’s were rounded up.
Delving through history, we skip through Sarah’s life as she grows up, trying to put the past behind her. The film, although focusing on guilt and shame, doesn’t feel heavy. We feel that eventually, Sarah is at peace and put to rest.
The acting is brilliant by all the cast: especially the younger actors. They manage to breathe life into an otherwise miserable and depressing time, keeping us hooked. Whilst our hearts are in our mouths, it’s the right level of nervousness, putting us in Sarah’s shoes as she desperately tries to save her younger brother.
The film is easy to follow though not for those who want to be fully immersed in a story: we are pulled from getting too attached to Sarah’s story as the film often flicks to Jarmond’s life. I would recommend it as an interesting and insightful watch, and is a relatively tame watch compared to films on the same subject such as The Boy In The Striped Pajamas.
les projecteurs (m) – searchlights
ombre – shade
fil de fer barbelé – barbed wire
les papiers d’identité – identity papers