Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s “Sarah’s Key” is an elegant adaptation of Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel about a young Jewish girl tragically caught up in the Nazi occupation of France. The central event in her story is a roundup of Parisian Jews in April, 1942 and their incarceration in a sports auditorium before transport to the camps. During a recent interview in Dallas, de Rosnay discussed national recognition of what’s come to be known as the Vel’ d’Hiv incident, which until recent decades wasn’t discussed in French schools.
“Now it is discussed,” de Rosnay said, “but it wasn’t when I was growing up, in the seventies. It was ignored—you can use that word. The first time I heard about it was in 1995, in Jacques Chirac’s speech, which made huge headlines. He was the first French president to publicly acknowledge the Velodrome d’Hiver. That was the first time I’d heard the word. And I was already in my thirties….Now [the Vichy period] is absolutely taught in schools. My kids were taught about it when they were fifteen and seventeen. But when I was growing up, [for] the Second World War we studied Nazism and General DeGaulle and D-Day, and Petain and Vichy—and these round-ups–were absolutely not taught. Now it is. I visit schools with family survivors, Holocaust survivors to talk about this book and their experiences. Now it’s definitely a part of the past of France we look at now. And it has [become part of school curricula] in the States too, judging from the e-mails I’ve been getting from teachers…and young students who are reading ‘Sarah’s Key’ for their history class.”
Part of what makes the book—and the movie—exceptional is its nuanced view of the people Sarah encounters during her journey—including some who help her despite the danger to themselves. “I really wanted to show that from what I’d read, and when I talked to people who’d lived through the war, you couldn’t really say that people were either good or bad,” de Rosnay explained. “What would you have done? It’s very difficult for us now to try to imagine what it was like to be in an occupied country. I wanted to show the balance between what makes you a hero and what makes you someone who would denounce a child—how it is, on the spur of the moment, that something in you decides to help that little girl or not—which brings us back to, what would we have done if we had been there?”
Yet despite its success and influence, “Sarah’s Key” almost didn’t get published. There were complaints that it was too sad, and that unlike the multilingual de Rosnay’s previous books, it was in English. “‘Sarah’s Key’ came to me in English, simply because I think I needed my mother’s tongue to distance myself from this dark part of France’s past,” de Rosnay—born in France to a French father and an English mother but educated in England (and living for a time in Boston)—said. “And also because Julia Jarmond [the character who unearths Sarah’s story] being American, there was absolutely no way I could make her speak French. So the book came to me in English without my even deciding about it. I wasn’t even aware of it—[when] my husband read the first thirty pages, he said, ‘This is great—and by the way, it’s in English.’ So since then I’ve continued writing in English.”
De Rosnay continued: “Nobody wanted it, and after two years I gave up. Then I interviewed Heloise d’Ormesson, who’s my French publisher—and she reads perfect English, she graduated from Yale University—for French ‘Elle,’ because she’d just started out her publishing company. This was in 2005. And to cut a very long story short, the manuscript found itself in her hands, and she loved it and sold it to forty countries, and the rest is history.”
De Rosnay emphasized her pleasure with how the film turned out, despite some significant changes from the book. “I didn’t need to fight for anything,” she said. “I love the movie. I didn’t mind the details…because the core of my book is there, the message that I’m trying to get through—which is, remember those children, and about this terrible family secret coming back and these families coming together because of this woman—is there. So I’m not fussy about the details, especially as I was included in the process of this movie ever since the beginning. They showed me the script, I had a tiny role in the movie, my kids play in a scene, I’ve been on a huge promotional tour in Europe, so I’m very happy with it. The most important thing here for me is…thinking that the book and the movie are like sisters. They have the same DNA, but they’re separate.”
And she added: “This is the important thing. I want you to tell my millions of American readers that they don’t have to be afraid. So many people are afraid when they love a book about not finding that book [in the movie]. They’re very excited—and worried—about the movie coming out. So please tell them that the author says, go see it. It’s a beautiful movie. There’s nothing that I don’t like about this movie.”