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Arts & Entertainment Presented by Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts

Cinema in Focus

Cinema in Focus: ‘Sarah’s Key’ Portrays Little-Known Holocaust Event

Powerful depiction helps unlock the mystery of the effects of our inhumanity

By Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman |

3 Stars — Troubling

Every nation has its dark secrets. For the French, it was complicity in the murder of thousands of Jews during the Nazi occupation of World War II. Called the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup because of the use of the Velodrome d’Hiver sports arena to gather more than 13,000 Parisian Jews for transport to the death camps, it was not until 1995 that the French government apologized to the world for its involvement in the Holocaust.

This little-known event has been powerfully presented through the cinematic direction of Gilles Paquet-Brenner. Based on a French novel by Tatiana De Rosnay, Sarah’s Key or Elle s’appelait Sarah is a multilingual journey into one young girl’s devastating experience.

A cheerful and resourceful girl, Sarah Starzynski (Melusine Mayance) is playing with her brother in innocent fun when the French police come to take them away. Thinking to save her little brother, she persuades him to hide in a secret closet and locks him in. Taken with her mother (Natasha Mashkevich) and father (Arben Bajraktaraj) to the Velodrome, they all realize that little Michel (Paul Mercier) is in grave danger because Sarah has the key to the closet with her. What they don’t realize at that moment is that they are equally in danger.

Taken from the sports arena to a holding camp in a nearby town, the family is systematically separated as husbands are taken from families and then mothers are taken from children. Were this to be the imagination of a novelist trying to build tension into the story, it would be unacceptable. But when it is realized that this was the reality of the evil that was the Holocaust, and that it was French policemen viciously engaging in these acts rather than Nazi SS officers, it becomes even more horrendous.

It can be more easily rationalized that it was an aberration of humanity that created the Nazi party, but when we see French policemen, or when we see the atrocity of modern slavery, or the dehumanizing nature of racial prejudice, we are confronted with the fact that murderous hatred is a universal malady of all humanity — a moral sickness for which we must find a cure.

Perhaps to lessen the darkness of Sarah’s sorrow, the story has another woman around whom the tale revolves, Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas). Julia is a current-day journalist who is given the assignment for a second time of writing about the round-up. An American living in Paris, her own private journey is interwoven with that of Sarah’s, and her own decision to save the life of her unborn child brings home the message of a modern though hidden holocaust.

The key to understanding how humanity can be so evil is not by keeping atrocities secret or denying our culpability in them, but to expose the truth. When truth is revealed and responsibility is taken, then the future is no longer burdened by the sins of the past. This is seen dramatically in Sarah’s life, and it is also seen in the lives of those she left behind.

Though a dark tale of interwoven sorrows, Sarah’s Key is aptly named as it helps us unlock the mystery of the effects of our inhumanity on those of other races, our unborn children and even ourselves.


» The dividing into nations with nationalistic pride and prejudice against others is seen at even the lower levels of high school rivalries and crosstown feuds. Where do you think such hatred originates? Is it a biologically driven survival of the fittest? Is it the result of social enculturation? Or is it based in a spiritual and moral brokenness?

» The trauma of losing her parents and then having caused her brother’s death was more than Sarah could handle. What do you think would have happened if she had received the care of a pastor or counselor to help her face and work through her fear and her guilt? How do you deal with your guilt?

» Since this is a fictional tale, do you think a real-life Sarah would have kept all of this a secret from her son? Would you have kept it a secret? Why?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit

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