Sarah’s Key

Author: Gilles Paquet-Brenner & Serge Joncour
Genre: Drama/Historical
Storyline: 7
Dialogue: 7
Characterization: 6
Writer’s Potential: 7

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In 2009 Paris, an American journalist traces the story of a Jewish girl whose family was rounded up during the Holocaust.


In July of 1942, French police come to the Starzynskis’ apartment with orders to take them, along with any other Jewish families in the area. SARAH (10) and her younger brother, MICHEL, hear the police outside and mistake them for their father. MRS. STARZYNSKI, their mother, answers the door. The police want to speak to the head of the household, but she says he’s not there. Frantic, knowing what’s coming, Sarah forces Michel to hide in a closet. She locks it and hides the key, promising to come back later and get him. She returns to the police, and Mrs. Starzynski announces that she doesn’t know where her husband and son are. In the courtyard outside, the apartment concierge rats out all the Jewish families as the police bring them down and line the tearful, frightened people. Because of the heat, the concierge assumes MR. STARZYNSKI slept in the cellar, where it’s cooler. The police don’t need to look — a stoic Mr. Starzynski emerges from the cellar and joins his family. Meanwhile, Michel is alone and terrified in the closet.

In 2009, JULIA JARMOND (40s, an American who has lived in Paris for 20 years) and her family (husband BERTRAND TEZAC, 50s, and daughter ZOE, 12) move into the Paris apartment owned by Bertrand’s family for years. They look around the musty old place, trying to assess what they can do to bring some modern flourishes to the place. Bertrand explains that his family struggled to keep up with the rent, but by the 1960s they had enough money to buy two adjoining apartments and convert it into one large flat. Julia works at a magazine called The Accidental Tourist. Her bosses gripe that the content is far too depressing, and they should focus more on the positive. When they see a blurb that courts have ruled in favor of a Holocaust survivor’s daughter in a case against the French government and transit authority, Julia and her editors are surprised that the younger employees are clueless about France’s role the “Vel d’Hiv” roundup that occurred in 1942. Julia wants to do a story on this, and her editors reluctantly agree.

In 1942, the Starzynskis are crammed into buses and led to the Velodrome d’Hiver, a huge cycling arena, where thousands of Jewish families have been crammed together. Sarah panics about leaving Michel behind in the locked closet. They watch a young brunette woman, ANNA, flirt her way into getting out of the hellish arena. Mr. Starzynski tries to go after her, desperate to give her the key to the closet, but Anna leaves and the police pounce on him. Starzynski turns his anger toward Sarah, further upsetting her. In 2009, Julia and photographer MIKE find the same area unsettling — the Vel d’Hiv is gone, replaced by a building for the minister of the interior. Julia appreciates the irony. At a nearby café, Julia and Mike are mistaken for Americans. They deny their heritage (Mike claims to be English, while Julia’s been in France so long that she passes as a native), then discuss the difficulties of being Americans in Paris. Julia asks the owner if any locals would be old enough to remember the roundup. The owner points her to an old woman, who describes the disturbing scene in detail: noisy and eerie, even from their distant, and within a couple of days they had to keep the windows shut despite the heat — not to block the noise but the smell. When Julia needles her about not doing anything, the old woman observes that they couldn’t exactly call the police.

In 1942, the Starzynskis are ushered onto a truck to a concentration camp in the country. Sarah has developed a fever. In 2009, Julia goes to a rest home to visit MAMé (90s), Bertrand’s grandmother. They talk about the apartment, and Julia’s surprised to learn they moved in during July of 1942. Mamé can’t recall the details of how or why they moved in at that particular time. Julia mentions it to Bertrand, who doesn’t find it strange. In 1942, by the time they arrive at the camp, Sarah’s fever has gotten much worse. The police have little interest. They divide the women and children from the men. Mr. Starzynski doesn’t want to leave his wife and daughter, but he has no choice. In 2009, Julia and Bertrand have dinner. When Bertrand doesn’t recall the significance of the restaurant, Julia observes that it’s the same place where she caught him having an affair some time ago. Bertrand is humiliated. Julia announces she’s pregnant, something they both thought was impossible because of complications with Zoe. Bertrand is not pleased with the news. He fears they’re too old to have a new child. He strongly hints that she should have an abortion. Angered, Julia storms out of the restaurant.

In 1942, Sarah’s fever has gotten so bad, she’s barely lucid. Mrs. Starzynski realizes the men’s barracks are empty. She faintly wonders why Dad went home without taking the key. German officers arrive and split the women and children camp: children under 12 in one barracks, 13 and up in the other. Mrs. Starzynski’s reluctance to part with Sarah causes officers to tear them apart. Sarah drops the key. Struggling on the ground, Sarah uses her last ounce of strength to grab the key. A REDHEADED OFFICER steps on her hand, crushing it. She stares at him, dazed. Ashamed, he removes his hand. In 2009, Julia visits FRANCK LEVY, a researcher who knows a great deal about the Holocaust. He helps Julia trace the history of the Tezacs’ apartment, to see if their apartment belonged to any Jewish families ousted during the war. Levy finds three families in the building and asks Julia what floor they live on.

In 1942, Sarah has managed to get over her fever. RACHEL, another 10-year-old, watches over her. Sarah wonders where all the adults have gone. Rachel’s surprised that Sarah doesn’t remember — but when Sarah thinks about it, she does, and it haunts her. From the other side of the barbed-wire fence, women toss food to the children. Officers chase them away and try to keep the kids away, but the Redheaded Officer takes pity on Sarah and Rachel, quietly kicking them an apple and some bread. Sarah and Rachel hatch an escape plan after finding a gap in the barbed-wire fence and determining that if they wear layers of clothes, they can make it through uninjured and run to freedom. Rachel is uncertain about the plan, but Sarah is obsessed with getting back to Michel. They get to the hole, and Rachel gets stuck. Sarah tries to push her through, but it’s too late — the Redheaded Officer catches them and tries to pull them away. Sarah begs him for help, and he takes pity on them yet again, holding the barbed wire and keeping watch until they get through and make it to the wheat fields beyond the camp. They run through the forest, make it to a pond (where they get much-needed water and are able to bathe), and find a corn field beyond that. They arrive at a farm belong to JULES and his wife, GENEVIEVE. Rachel’s fallen sick, but the farmers send them away without help.

In 2009, Julia mentions Bertrand’s abortion desire to her sister, ALICE (40s, living in New York). Alice tells Julia to do what she needs to do, not what Bertrand wants her to do. Julia and Mike arrive at Beaune-la-Rolande, a village near the concentration camp. A plaque lists the names of victims who passed through the camp. They find the Starzinskys — the names Levy gave Julia — but Sarah’s is not on it. Julia suspects she escaped. In 1942, Sarah and Rachel refuse to leave the farmer. Reluctantly, Jules and Genevieve take pity, especially when they see how ill Rachel is. Jules refuses to get the doctor, because he speaks with the Germans a little too much. Untrusting, Sarah gives a fake name. When the couple sees the Rachel is likely dying, they finally give up and call the doctor and hide Sarah in the basement. The doctor brings German officers. Rachel dies in their care. Willing to trust them, Sarah tells the couple her real name.

In 2009, Julia visits Mamé and is surprised to find EDOUARD (70s, Mamé’s son and Bertrand’s father) waiting for her. She’s been ducking his phone calls. He accosts her for putting the family into turmoil because of her research into the apartment. In 1942, Julies and Genevieve dress Sarah up like a boy and take her to Paris. The police and German officers pay little mind, although the trio are tense throughout. In 2009, Edouard explains that he and his father knew about the Starzynskis, but only after the fact. In 1942, a nine-year-old Edouard opens the door to find Sarah, Jules, and Genevieve. Sarah immediately rushes into the house, pulls a bookshelf out from in front of the closet, and unlocks the door — to find Michel’s bloated, unrecognizable corpse. She’s horrified. In 2009, Edouard explains that when they moved in, they found a dead cat and attributed the horrific smell to it. They’d only been there a few days before Sarah showed up. Edouard tells Julia that nobody knows this — it’s been his secret since his father died. Feeling guilty, Edouard allows Julia to go through his father’s personal files, something he’s been too afraid to do.

Bertrand surprises Julia with a romantic dinner, but it ends in a fight — she’s angry at his attempts at romance despite the fact that she’s getting an abortion in a week. Julia reads through Edouard’s father’s files and finds that he sent 100 francs to Sarah each month. As Julia reads the letters, flashbacks show her getting on with her life — helping the family with the farming, befriending her new cousins, seeming to enjoy herself, but still haunted with a deep sadness. After the war, they visit the D-Day beaches. Sarah decides she wants to start traveling. In 2009, Julia has impressed the entire editorial staff with her emotional, well-written article. Even though she’s done with the article, Julia continues researching, trying to track down living relatives of the cousins mentioned in the letter. Julia stays overnight in a clinic for her abortion. While in the clinic, Julia gets a call from NATHALIE, the granddaughter of one of the cousins. She leaves without getting the abortion. Nathalie disappoints Julia by explaining that her grandfather hasn’t heard from Sarah in 50 years. She left in 1953 with no forwarding address, and two years later sent a wedding announcement from Connecticut as Sarah Rainsferd.

Without telling anyone in her family, Julia jets off to New York and meets up with Alice, who has found all eight Rainsferds in Connecticut. Julia beats the streets trying to find the right one. Eventually, she finds one who has European relatives — but the woman is Italian, not French. However, this is the right family. This MRS. RAINSFERD married MR. RAINSFERD after Sarah died in 1968, the victim of a car accident. Flashbacks reveal that Sarah had become a pill-popping drunk and hints that her death may have been a suicide. Mrs. Rainsferd puts Julia in contact with WILLIAM, the son of Sarah and Mr. Rainsferd. He’s living in Italy, so she jets off there. Meanwhile, Zoe has found out about the baby and gripes to Julia about keeping secrets but admits she’ll be happy to have a brother or sister. Julia’s meeting with William is uncomfortable. He’s gregarious and fun-loving — until she starts showing her research into Sarah’s past. William thinks she has the wrong man, until he shows her a photo of Sarah from 1942. It’s clearly his mother, but he thinks the photo is fake.

Upset, Julia returns to Paris empty-handed. Bertrand is livid that she’d run off all over the world without even consulting with anyone. They agree the marriage is over. At the Rainsferds’ Connecticut home, William shows up and talks to his father about Sarah. He describes the first time he met her, having fun with her at a dance hall despite her obvious underlying sadness. He explains how much energy he devoted to erasing that sadness, but he just couldn’t. Mr. Rainsferd hands William a diary Sarah kept from childhood through young adulthood. Inside is the key.

Two years later, Julia and Zoe have moved to New York. Zoe isn’t happy there. Julia and her two-year-old meet with William. William keeps thinking the baby’s name is “Lucy,” and he doesn’t quite understand when Julia repeatedly insists that Lucy is the name of the baby’s stuffed giraffe. After William apologizes, he says he found Starzynski cousins in Israel who made it through the Holocaust. Julia is happy that the Rainsferds have found some peace with this knowledge, since it destroyed Julia’s family. William is shocked and overcome with emotion when he learns the baby is actually named Sarah. He thanks Julia.


Sarah’s Key aspires to tell the story of French compliance with the Nazi round-up of Jews through the eyes of an innocent 10-year-old girl. The story set in 1942 is fascinating and remarkable, but it’s intercut with a present-day subplot that serves as a huge distraction to the real heart of the story. As written, it merits a consider.

The first act sets up the parallel stories: Sarah’s family is rounded up, while Julia and her family move into the same apartment nearly 70 years later. From the start, Julia’s storyline detracts from the 1942 storyline. Aside from a few disheartening scenes pointing out how France seems to have forgotten their role in the extermination of Jews, the subplot adds nothing to what’s occurring in the past. Despite the fact that most of Julia’s story revolves around digging up information on Sarah, it never quite connects to Sarah’s storyline in a more meaningful way than simply providing on-the-nose information about the past.

As a result, Sarah’s story feels relegated to a few key sequences, while in the present, characters talk ad nauseam about what happened years ago. Julia interviewing for a story is a crutch that allows the present-day figures to deliver long monologues instead of finding more natural ways to inform the audience. It would be much more interesting, and likely have greater emotional impact, to see these conversations dramatized rather than simply described.

In the third act, the script virtually abandons the past, focusing solely on Julia’s quest to find Sarah’s relatives. As the writer reveals more information about Sarah’s post-war life, it’s clear that they’re telling the wrong story. Sarah’s life, from her harrowing escape to her tragic suicide, is endlessly fascinating, if a bit depressing. Julia’s story could never hope to be this interesting, so it’s frustrating that the writers spend so much time with her at the expense of Sarah.

It feels like Julia and Sarah should share some kind of bond that spans generations, cultures, and religions. They don’t. Aside from her investigative reporter traits, Julia has no clear reason to get so obsessive about learning Sarah’s story. Julia is, quite simply, never shown having any sort of emotional connection to the research — aside from the obvious sympathy any human would feel for children forced into such horrific circumstances. Such a connection would help greatly in showing why anyone in the audience should care about Julia’s story at all. Without it, the 2009 sequences feel like a distraction to lazily spoonfeed information to the audience, rather than finding more compelling ways to reveal the information.

As mentioned, what is learned about Sarah is exceptionally interesting — but the script doesn’t spend nearly enough time with her or her story. Her traumatic childhood led to a troubled adulthood that ended too early. That’s the stuff of great drama, so why do the writers shy away from it? They seem to believe the heart of the story is the mystery of what happened to Sarah after the war. Her life is the heart of the story, not the investigation into it.

However, the possibility exists that a great director and exceptional acting can overcome the narrative obstacles. Beyond that, the script is adapted from a bestselling novel that, one assumes, follows the same Julia-Sarah split narrative. If people liked the novel, they will come to the movie.

Posted by D. B. Bates on February 3, 2010 12:30 PM