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'Sarah's Key' Combination Lock on History

July 28, 2011 By:
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Kristin Scott Thomas as an investigative journalist. Photos by Julien Bonet/The Weinstein Company

"Sarah's Key" is filmmaker Gilles Paquet-Brenner's pièce de résistance -- ironic given how the Resistance failed as a concept in Nazi-occupied France (setting of the film), where so many French kissed off the futures of their Jewish compatriots by becoming collaborators during World War II.

Indeed, it is the French, not the Nazis, who occupy the heart of this breathtakingly and unabashedly complex creation, with the filmmaker taking on timeless topics, opening the mind and the heart with insights.

Adapted from Tatiana de Rosnay's novel, director/co-scripter Paquet-Brenner's bristling bifurcated approach is a masterwork of wise choices. He uses an interlocking time warp for worlds so different yet similar as that experienced by a young girl and her family captured by the Nazis, and, years later, a journalist assigned to cover her story.

Just don't call it a Holocaust film. "Why does everything involving the Holocaust have to be called a Holocaust movie?" the director carps of what he considers capricious categorizing.

"I hate the expression."

Instead, he sees "Sarah's Key" as "first a movie, then a thriller."

But he is also thrilled that some have called it a credit to the genre that includes "Schindler's List." Key to his happiness, he emphasizes, is the compliment -- not his belief that he belongs in that company.

Such films, he says of Steven Spielberg's classic -- which he considers "the Monument" -- belong on their own list.

But, in a way, Paquet-Brenner's effort about the twists that history takes -- spinning a girl's life out of control in a tornado of terror once she's captured by the Nazis -- heads a new list, marked by its own excellence and exquisite storytelling.

The story of the 36-year-old French filmmaker has its own tale of influence: His Jewish grandfather, a musician, was deported during the war from France to Birkenau, where he died, leaving behind only echoes of history for his grandson.

Those faint vibrations resonated enough with Paquet-Brenner that he included a similar character -- a violinist captured and sent to an unstrung future in a concentration camp -- in the film.

"My movie is dedicated to him," the filmmaker -- who does not consider himself Jewish -- says of his paternal grandfather.

It is also a film dedicated to examining survivor's guilt, a theme the filmmaker has been "fascinated with" since first reading de Rosnay's novel three years ago and optioning it soon after it came out.

Certainly, it is key to understanding the central character, who closets away her past and a terrible youthful mistake she made. But attempting to place a padlock on pain, she discovers, can never really hold back the terrible time evoked by memories, their tumblers reopened to haunting effect.

"It is interesting to have a young person deal with the guilt," Paquet-Brenner says of Sarah, rather than the more commonly seen screen presence of an older wiser survivor.

One topic does not grow old, and that is the role of the French as Nazi henchmen, helping the Germans jettison the Jewish "problem," in some cases aiding and abetting their occupiers.

"Collaboration is a big issue in France," says the director.

"In many ways, it was a weird war for the French," who faced "quieter" times at home because they traded in treachery as collaborators, while bombs blasted away at their not-so-acquiescent European neighbors, he says.

"There is a strong guilt about collaboration, which can be addressed now" at home, says the filmmaker, citing the distance of time and the fact that so many of the collaborators have died.

"It is somewhat the same situation" faced by the French as in Germany, says Paquet-Brenner, citing healing wounds and facing hellish truths.

But that sense of guilt does not travel to the audience, who may have their own baggage. "You cannot offer a movie that tries to make the audience feel guilty," says the director.

"After all, they were not there at the time; they don't have to feel guilty."

But responsible in part? Complicit compadres? Ah, viva la difference: "We are all human beings," says Paquet-Brenner, "and because our past defines our present," we must learn from history, as heinous as its lessons may be.

If the director is two-timing history -- switching scenes between past and present -- he has twinned time zones before: His previously best-known film, "Pretty Things," dealt with twin sisters.

The duality intrigued him -- as does now the coupled chronology of "Sarah's Key," and his next, set in Middle America, "Dark Places."

But enlightenment follows him at every turn. The director has been making personal appearances at pre-opening showings of "Sarah's Key," and many post-screening discussions have helped reshape his own thoughts on the film.

One woman, at a screening at the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, differed with the director's contention that survivors come out of the Holocaust experience either willing to live life or flail at it, suffering from their guilt. "She said, 'I am a survivor, and I am full of life and full of guilt.' "

Paquet-Brenner is far from being full of himself. As he talks, he is deferential to other filmmakers while sincerely committed to his own vision. The film shoot helped him key in on his own sense that "I would do something about this time" in history, "but I wanted a new perspective."

Signs pointing the way may have included one from high above. In one scene, actress Kristin Scott Thomas (as the journalist) stops at a plaque at Paris' Holocaust memorial. The choice of her position was not pre-planned. But pre-ordained?

The name on the plaque: "It is my grandfather's," says the "Sarah's Key" director of the serendipitous surrender to the fates.

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