Marie Muller still remembers the paralyzing fear she felt as a 10-year-old in 1942 Paris whenever there was a knock at the door.
“It felt like the entire world was coming after us,” said Muller, 79, whose name was Lipman before she married. “I hid in the homes of various people — some of them relatives, others strangers. And I had so many close calls. It always depended on whether the French policeman decided to look the other way or not. I was lucky, because there were so many times I could have been taken.”
Muller, who lives in Winnipeg, is referring to a heinous chapter of history that had until recently gone unexplored: the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, a mass raid throughout Paris by French policemen on July 16-17, 1942. More than 10,000 Jews were yanked from their homes, held at the Velodrome D’Hiver stadium under deplorable conditions, then transferred to the Drancy internment camp, where men were separated from women, parents were separated from their children, and everyone eventually was shipped by train to Auschwitz for extermination.
The mass roundup was carried out by the Vichy government, which technically still ruled France with sovereignty but took orders from Germany, which occupied the northern part of the country in 1940.
For decades, the roundup had received scant mention in French history books. In 1995, Jacques Chirac became the first French president to issue a public apology for his country’s deportation of Jews during the war. A few years later, Tatiana de Rosnay wrote “Sarah’s Key,” a novel inspired by the events of those days. The book spent 120 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, has been published in 38 countries and sold 3 million copies worldwide.
And now, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has turned “Sarah’s Key” into a powerful movie. His aim, Paquet-Brenner says, is to give audiences the full visual and audio impact of what he refers to as “France’s national shame.”
The movie stars Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia, a reporter in present-day Paris who while researching an article uncovers the story of a little girl named Sarah, played by Melusine Mayance. Sarah survived the 1942 roundup, but at an unspeakable cost. The more Julia learns about Sarah’s story, the more obsessed she becomes with finding out what happened to the girl after the war. Her investigation leads to a shocking and moving revelation that proves the past always shapes our present, regardless of whether we are aware of it.
During a recent visit to Miami to promote the film, Paquet-Brenner, who is Jewish, said that de Rosnay’s novel was a perfect vehicle to spread the word about this little-known chapter in his country’s history. “There have been very few Holocaust movies made in France, so it made sense to make it,” he said. “History feels closer when you understand how clearly it can affect your present. And it can affect someone even like Kristin’s character, who is neither Jewish nor French, and yet she’s going to be very permanently changed by it.
“When you think of the younger generation, it’s important to understand why you need to know history. It’s not about memorizing dates and getting good grades on tests: It’s because our past defines who we are now, and you need to understand it and face it, even when it’s painful, to have a better picture of yourself.”
Rabbi Solomon Schiff, chairman of the Holocaust Memorial of the Greater Miami Jewish Foundation, says movies like “Sarah’s Key” are vital. “As the number of survivors diminish, and their personal testimonies disappear, this movie is a visual reminder of what happened,” he said.
“Second, if this could happen in France — one of the most democratic, liberal and humanitarian countries in the world — it could happen anywhere, so we have to be vigilant in counter-acting bigotry. And third, as the number of Holocaust deniers rises — look at Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example — movies like this become even more important.”
De Rosnay, who wrote the novel 10 years ago and then watched in amazement as it gained popularity around the world, is not Jewish and says her motivation was mostly historical.
“I was very keen on revealing the scars that the war had left on my country 60 years ago,” she said from Paris. “When I first found out about the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, I was shocked, because I barely knew anything about it, and I was born in France and had spent my life not knowing anything about this terrible event.”
The movie has been as well-received around the world as de Rosnay’s novel, even winning the audience award at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival.
“When that happened, I knew we had made a film that could move anybody,” Paquet-Brenner said. “Considering the success of the book in the U.S., I thought it would be easy to find a distributor here. But I was surprised to find out that wasn’t the case. There is a feeling of ‘The last thing we need is another Holocaust movie,’ even though that’s not an accurate description of the film.
Although other distributors passed, Paquet-Brenner found a receptive home with The Weinstein Co., which released the Best Picture Oscar-winning “The King’s Speech” and is distributing “Sarah’s Key” gradually around the country.
“What Gilles achieved with ‘Sarah’s Key’ — and this is also true of Tatiana’s book — is a story that goes beyond the history from which it is born and speaks to its audience on a very personal level,” said Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein. “For us, the acquisition of ‘Sarah’s Key’ was a no-brainer. We have never shied away from stories that provoke conversation.”
Paquet-Brenner also points out that unlike most Holocaust-themed movies, ‘Sarah’s Key,’ although harrowing in moments, is ultimately an uplifting tale about coming to terms with the past.
“It’s a very positive movie, because it’s incredibly cathartic and you end on a big ray of hope,” the director said. “I know some people would hesitate to see a movie like this, but I promise you won’t walk out of the theater depressed. And anyone can relate to this story, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not, especially in the United States, because this is a country made up of immigrants from all over the world. This story is part of this country’s DNA.”