The first is a little girl named Sarah, a Jew living in France in 1942. The second is a an American expat, Julia, married to a Frenchman, Frédéric, who has just inherited an apartment in Paris that belonged to his grandparents.
Julia is a journalist, and as the film opens, she’s been assigned by her magazine to do a feature on the infamous 1942 “Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup” of the Jews in France. As she digs into the story, she finds her interest piqued further when she learns Frédéric’s grandparents had moved into that Paris apartment just a few weeks after the Roundup took place.
Struck by the coincidence, Julia begins to research the apartment, soon discovering that a Jewish family had lived there just before Frédéric’s family moved in — Sarah’s family.
Sarah’s story opens on the day of the Vel’ d’Hiv, when she is awakened by the sound of the French gendarmes pounding on her front door. As her mother moves to open up, 10 year-old Sarah ushers her little brother, about 4 years old, into the closet, hands him a little container of water, and tells him not to move until she comes back for him. She locks the closet, slips the key into her pocket, and dashes into the hallway before the policemen are any the wiser. Sarah and her mother are whisked outside, where her father catches up to them, and the three are quickly taken to the Velodrome d’Hiver, a large cycling stadium where all the Jews are being held until they can be moved out en masse to internment camps.
When Sarah and her parents realize what’s happening — that they and about 13,000 other Jews (30% of them children) are about to be taken away forever, they panic. But there’s nothing they can do; there’s no way to escape, no way to get the key to the closet to someone who can help. A few days of astonishing hell later (no bathrooms, no food, no water, stifling temperatures — think the Superdome in New Orleans, Julia tells her colleagues, times a thousand), the family is moved to the French-run Beaune-la-Rolande internment camp. The adults are soon separated from the children and sent to Auschwitz, where most of them are eventually killed. The children stay behind a short while longer, before also being shipped off to their deaths.
But not Sarah. Determined to get back to her brother before it’s too late, she and her new friend Rachel manage to charm one of the French guards into letting them slip under the wire. When Rachel becomes extremely ill on their way back to the city, Sarah seeks help from a farmer and his wife, who offer to take them both in and protect them. Despite being utterly exhausted, Sarah refuses to stay — she must get back to Paris, to her brother, and if they won’t take her there, she’ll go alone.
And so, they take her. And when they finally arrive, Sarah races up the stairs, pounds on the door, and is greeted by a little boy of about 12 years — Frédéric’s grandfather, it turns out. She pushes past him, runs to the closet, unlocks it — and, well, you can imagine.
From there, the two stories weave together further as Julia becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Sarah. She never showed up on any of the lists of Jews killed in WWII — but where is she? What she eventually discovers about the rest of Sarah’s life is a powerful testament to the devastating long-term effects trauma and loss have on those who are left behind to live.
Despite the obviously depressing storyline of this film, it still somehow manages to end on a more-or-less optimistic note — a bittersweet ending to a very bitter tale. Even when life doesn’t go on, life still goes on, after all — a family can heal. The truth can help.
The Vel’ d’Hiv round-up is something I had never heard much about until seeing this movie. After looking into it more, I can understand why France would want to bury as deep as they could their shameful complicity with the Nazis, and their wholesale sending-to-slaughter of so many of their own (the Vel’ d’Hiv is just one of several similar events in France during the early days of the war, by the way). Initially, I assumed this was a decision that had to have been based squarely in fear — France was already occupied by Germany 1942 and its people must have been terrified of where that occupation was leading, and too afraid not to cooperate. But the more I read, the more it became clear that, at least at the state level, the French (Vichy) government didn’t mind too much the idea of packing off their Jews — from the elderly right down to the infant. As long as I live, I will never understand things like this — and thank god for that.
This film was based on a novel of the same name by Tatiana de Rosnay, and as soon as I’ve recovered from seeing the movie, I’ll definitely be seeking out the book. Highly recommended, though be prepared for a heavy experience — rare is the WWII movie that doesn’t provide one, I suppose. It’s worth it.
Genre: Drama, Mystery, War
Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frédéric Pierrot, Aidan Quinn