Sarah’s Key: unlocking French self-loathing

Yet another film about France’s role in the Holocaust suggests the French have ditched self-reflection in favour of self-hatred.

Neil Davenport

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In the late Tony Judt’s book on European history, Postwar, he attacks the French for their ‘amnesia’ regarding the Holocaust. The silence of postwar French leaders on the French state’s contribution to genocide was singled out as a national disgrace. Judt could make no such complaints about the French today. Vel d’Hiv, shorthand for the round up of Parisian Jews, has taken centre stage in French political and cultural life. It has almost become the Gallic equivalent of Britain’s guilt-ridden relationship with its colonial and slave-trading past. No doubt some would argue that it’s about time the French addressed their recent history, but is a bout of national self-loathing really such a good thing?

Recent French films have keenly explored the issue of collaboration with Nazi occupiers during the Second World War. Until recently, most French films stuck to a Gaullist line, depicting France as a nation of plucky resistance fighters against Nazi troops. In 2002, Laissez-Passer also depicted heroic resistance fighters, but notably dwelled on how politicians and police chiefs enthusiastically collaborated with Nazi commanders. When one SS officer scornfully asks a French politician ‘why did you lot roll over so easily?’, it suggested that the gloves were coming off regarding France’s shameful past. Army of Crime (2009), essentially a remake of Army of Shadows (1969), explicitly showed French secret agents working with Nazi officers in the persecution of Jews and communists, while the biopic of French icon (Serge) Gainsbourg (2010) was told in the shadow of Vel d’Hiv and respectable anti-Semitism in France.

But two films that deal specifically with Vel d’Hiv, The Round Up (2010) and the recently released Sarah’s Key, reveal a rather morbid fascination with this episode of national shame. Both films tackle the arrest, imprisonment and deportation of Paris-based Jews in July 1942 by French, as opposed to Nazi, authorities. Both films are unflinching in their portrayal of people being treated in the most appalling and barbaric fashion. No matter how grimly familiar the road to Auschwitz has become to us, both films have the capacity to shock and horrify. But whereas The Round Up is shot almost like a factual documentary, Sarah’s Key clumsily attempts to draw therapeutic lessons about confronting ‘secrets from the past’. In doing so, it contributes to the notion that a good French national identity can only be constructed through feeling bad about the past.

Adapted from the best-selling French novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, Sarah’s Key contributes to the new inverted form of French national identity through telling two stories connected to Vel d’Hiv. In the first story, it is 1942 and Parisian police arrive at the home of a Jewish girl, Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance). Sensing the duplicity behind the police officer’s reassurances, Sarah locks her brother in a cupboard, promising to return. We follow Sarah and her family as they experience the wretched conditions at Paris’ Vélodrome d’Hiver, before they are transported to Beaune-la-Rolande concentration camp.

Sixty years later, American journalist Julia, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, is researching a story on the round-up of Jews and discovers that her French husband’s father and grandparents moved into Sarah’s flat weeks after the incidents of 1942. The two halves are told concurrently, as we learn about Sarah’s escape from the camp, growing up on a farm and moving to America, while Julia globe-trots between Paris, New York and Florence in search of anyone connected to Sarah Starzynski. Scott Thomas is as luminous as ever, but many of the younger supporting cast are balsa wood in comparison to this big-screen heavyweight. The slightly rushed and rather trite union of past and present lives in the climactic scenes also lends Sarah’s Key a made-for-TV feel – hardly a resounding recommendation.

Nevertheless, much of the film’s central narrative resonates with the way French national identity is now being constructed. Julia is on the side of the angels because she is forcing everyone to confront the dirty past, while her husband’s family, despite helping the young Sarah as much as they could, are recast as complicit villains. Equally, the widowed husband of Sarah, in New York, is criticised for not being therapeutically open and emotional enough about Sarah’s past when talking to their son.

Of course, this isn’t to suggest that horrific events from the past should be ignored. But it is problematic when French national identity is seemingly only forged through the narrative of national guilt and shame, especially when French people today are judged by the actions of corrupt others. Vel d’Hiv, for example, has been issued as a warning about the morally corruptible nature of French citizens. The French football team’s tantrums during last year’s World Cup – when the team revolted against the coach and suffered an early exit – and French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s apparent philistinism and immigration policies have been compared to the events of July 1942. As one journalist put it, ‘this is what happens when France stops being France’.

All this simply becomes the inverse of France’s former silence on its collusion with the Nazis. Today, it is France’s darkest days, rather than its Enlightenment-based principles of liberty, fraternity and equality, that are continually brought to the forefront of public debate. The raking over of the past also tends to ignore the tens of thousands of French citizens who risked their lives hiding Jews from the Nazis and the French police.

Sarah’s Key and other Vel d’Hiv-themed films reflect a palpable mood shift in French society. They imply that being ‘good’ French citizens now involves feeling shameful and morose about being, well, French. Sarkozy was on to something when he said he was worried about the shift towards self-hatred within French society. As the 2005 riots around Paris showed, open self-doubt can act as an invitation for anyone with a grudge to ‘have a go’. It’s certainly difficult to see how French society can be cohered around its darkest hour and habitual self-loathing. They only have to look across the English Channel to see the dangers in that.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

See the trailer for Sarah’s Key below:

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