Closing The Family Book: Gilles Paquet-Brenner and the Filming of Sarah's Key

Gilles Paquet-Brenner, Melusine Mayance as Sarah and Natasha Mashkevich as Madam Starzynksi in Sarah's Key
Gilles Paquet-Brenner, Melusine Mayance as Sarah and Natasha Mashkevich as Madam Starzynksi in Sarah's Key
Photo by Julien Bonet/ The Weinstein Company

Sarah's Key, the latest film from French director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, tells the story of an American journalist in Paris who is researching the 1942 Vel d'Hiv roundup, in which French police arrested Jewish families and put them in internment camps, to be later sent to Auschwitz. The journalist, played by Kristen Scott Thomas, discovers her new home was once the home of one of the victims, and her life becomes consumed with the story of a young girl and her brother.

For Paquet-Brenner, who based his film on Tatiana de Rosnay's 2007 book, the film was a chance to bring the story of the French collaboration with the Nazis to a broad audience.

"In France, war movies are usually about the Resistance," Paquet-Brenner tells Art Attack. "The real shame is the collaboration of the French with the Nazis, and a lot of people don't know about it."

The film, which opens in Houston today, bounces back and forth between the modern day and 1942; the challenge there Paquet-Brenner says, was making sure the transitions were smooth and natural.

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Paquet-Brenner has a personal view of the Holocaust: he is of Jewish descent, and he had relatives who died in concentration camps. He says he didn't become emotional during filming ("I just had normal director's problems"), but there was a sense of familial catharsis that ran parallel to it. His grandmother died in the middle of filming, and his daughter was born on the last day of editing.

"It was a little like closing a family book," he says.

He says he hopes people come to understand the more universal messages in the film, those of family and survival, rather than characterize it as another Holocaust or World War II movie.

"In the U.S. there's this concept of 'Holocaust fatigue', which isn't really an issue in France," he says. "I don't know if it's because in France we don't have as many movies that deal with the Holocaust, but in the United States, every journalist has asked about it."

So is he tired of hearing the same question over and over again?

"At first it was frustrating, because I don't want to be put in a box," he says. "The message is universal. It's a universal story, not a Holocaust story. Now, I think it's very interesting."

Sarah's Key is now playing at Edwards Greenway Grand Palace Stadium 24, 3839 Weslayan Street.

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