This is a complex and ambitious film that deals with one of France’s most shameful secrets. It stars Kristin Scott Thomas and I enjoyed it a great deal.
In July 1942 the French police rounded up several thousand French Jewish citizens who ended up in concentration camps. I repeat, this was not a German operation, but a French one, carried out by the French authorities as part of their self-appointed mission to show that they too could be good Nazis. One part of the film deals with this episode, focusing on a young girl called Sarah who locks her younger brother in a secret compartment when the police arrive, and tells him to promise to stay there. Then she and her parents are driven away, leaving him alone.
In 2009, American journalist called Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) starts to write a story about the events of 1942, and during her research discovers that her French husband’s family may have had a closer relationship to those historical events than she could have imagined. Her quest for the truth of what happened runs parallel with what became of Sarah in her determination to rescue her brother from his hiding place. The story goes on for longer than we expect, and plunges deeper into the complexities of the past and its consequences. In some ways it reminds me of another excellent French films from a few years ago called Un Secret (which would be an equally appropriate title for this film). That also dealt with the suppressed guilt left over from France’s involvement in the murder of Jews, mingling past with present.
I am not entirely without reservations. At times the modern day story can seem a little contrived and lacking the emotional kick we get from the powerful scenes from 1942. Scott Thomas is, as always, a wonderful screen presence, her cool detachment masking her passion and anger, and she is matched by the young Melusine Mayance as Sarah, whose eyes burn through the screen. And perhaps the film goes on just a little too long, as Julia follows through her initial discoveries with an almost pathological desire to know where it will take her, through succeeding generations. But these are minor quibbles. There is so much here that is rich, intelligent and subtle, allowing us to imagine the feelings of those involved, as well as giving full rein to them on other occasions.
It’s easy for the British, who remained unoccupied by the Germans, to pride ourselves on not having collaborated and pass judgement on those who did. Who knows how we would have reacted? At the same time, other European countries were far less willing to offer up their fellow citizens, and went to great lengths to protect them. However French cinema has done a lot of atoning for past sins with an unflinching examination of the past. Elle s’appelait Sarah (to give it its proper title) is a moving addition to that body of work.