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11 August 2011

Happy Is the Country Which Has No History

The first two things I learned about the film Sarah's Key were 1) it stars Kristin Scott Thomas and 2) it is based on the book of the same name by Tatiana de Rosnay, so I knew it wasn't going to be the most cheerful of films, even before I knew what it was about (when was the last time KST laughed in a film, anyway? I've seen about eight of her movies from the last eight years and I don't remember her laughing in any of them).

I recently read a copy of another de Rosnay book, A Secret Kept, which tells the story of a grown-up brother and sister who return to the village in Brittany where they went on holiday as children and on the drive back to Paris, the sister is about to tell the brother something terrible when she passes out and crashes the car. While the sister remains in a coma, her brother reflects on the past and begins to investigate the death of their mysterious mother when they were teenagers. I enjoyed this novel a lot, although it was certainly very dark.

Sarah's Key (originally: Elle s'appelait Sarah) is also very dark and very sad, and has a similar structure, in some ways, to A Secret Kept. KST plays Julia, an American journalist who has lived in France for 25 years, who is investigating the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup, the nickname for the two nights in July 1942 when, on orders from the Nazis, the French police rounded up over 13,000 Jews and transported them to the Vélodrome d'Hiver, before their subsequent deportation to concentration camps in Germany and Poland. The story of Julia getting the story is intertwined with the story of the eponymous Sarah, and her family. They were taken off to Vel' d'Hiv but not before Sarah managed to hide her young brother in a cupboard in their apartment and lock the door. She promised she would be back, but then she--and none of the others, in fact--really knew just how dire a situation they were in. Meanwhile, Julia's architect/work-obsessed husband Bertrand has just arranged the renovation of his grandparents' apartment in the Marais in Paris. Funnily enough, his grandmother lived their for 60 years (and it's 2002, by the way)...

It's hard to say much more about the plot without spoiling things but suffice to say, it did bring a tear to my eye at various moments. As usual, I didn't empathise a huge amount with KST's character (there is something about her that makes me feel as though she is patronising or lecturing me personally rather than her inevitable crappy-husband character), and I kept wanting the focus to remain on Sarah and her family rather than Julia's present-day woes, although I concede that structurally, the film worked well.

I have, of course, seen Schindler's List and Primo Levi's Se questo è un uomo (If this is a man) was one of my Italian set texts in the "Visions of Hell" literature paper I took at university, not that either lessens the impact of watching a film that depicts such a horrific period of European history. I learned a lot of quotations from Se questo è un uomo for my exam; oddly, most of the ones that I can still remember feature mainly German words: an Auschwitz guard describing the prisoners' eating using the verb fressen (usually used for animals) rather than essen, and, most notably, "Hier ist kein Warum." There's no "why" here. How could there be?

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