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August 12, 2011

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, AUGUST 12, 2011 PAGE 15A Star of 'Sarah's Key:' 'I don't see it as a "Holocaust" film' By Naomi Pfefferman Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles Kristin Scott Thomas con- jures images of the quintes- sentially British thespian, having portraying upper crust or reserved characters in films such as "Four Weddings and a Funeral" ana'-'The English Pa- tient." for which she received a 1997 Oscar nomination. In previous newspaper stories, writers also have described her as reserved. But Scott Thomas was thoughtful, even passionate while discussing her new movie, "Sarah's Key", inwhich she portrays an American journalist living in Paris who uncovers secrets involv- ing the Shoah. The actress has already earned stellar reviews for her emotional but never-maudlin performance in Gilles Paquet-Brenner's film, adapted from Tatiana de Rosnay's bestselling novel. The drama cuts back and . forth in time to tell the slowly intertwining stories of Julia Jarmond (Scott Thomas), an expatriate in Paris circa 2002. and Sarah Starzynski (Me- lusine-Nayaiace), a 10-year- old arrested by the French police during the infamous "Vel d'Hiv" roundup of 1942. In July of that year, 13,000 Jews were corralled into the Velodrome d'Hiver and held in appalling conditions for By Naomi Pfefferman Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles [n the opening sequence of "Sarah's Key," 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mglusine Mayance) tickles her younger brother as the family cat grooms itself in the sunshine. The sweet domestic scene is shattered when a thunder- OUS knocking signals the arrival of the French police, It is the morning of July 16. 1942. and the authorities are rounding up some 131000 Jews for internment in the Vglodrome d'Hiver before deportation to transit camps, then Auschwitz. In the film based on Tatiana de Rosnay's best- selling novel--Sarah tries to save her 4-year-old brother. Michel, by locking him inside a bedroom cupboard, their se- cret hiding place, promising to return before being herded off to the velodrome. Her desperate attempts to return cut back and forth in time with the modern-day story of Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist living in Paris wfio, while researching the little- known history of the deporta- tion of French Jews. stumbles upon a searing discovery: The family apartment she is about to move into was once the Starzynskis' home. As Jar- mond becomes obsessed with Sarah's heartbreaking story, she tackles comNex issues of how to live with the past while also moving forward into an uncertain future, "You must be careful when attempting another Holocaust movie because you don't want people to become fatigued by the subject," the film's 36-year-old direc- several days before intern- ment in transit camps, then Auschwitz. Before being herded off with her parents, Sarah tries to save her 4-year-old brother, Michel. by locking him inside a bedroom cupboard, their ~secret hiding place, promising to return to release him. That promise will not only torment Sarah, but will haunt Jar- - mond, who,while researching the little-known history of the Vel d'Hiv roundup, discov- ers that the apartment she is about to move into Once belonged to the Starzynskis. "I don't see ['Sarah's Key'] as a Holocaust film," said Scott Thomas, 51, who has lived in Paris almost all of her adult life. "While it takes place during this dark and dismal period in French history, I don't see it as a reconstruction of a movie about what you would call the Holocaust. After watching Claude Lanzmann's 'Shoah.' for example, I've found most films reconstructing those events to be father pitiful." Scott Thomas was drawn to "Sarah's Key" because it "doesn't just recreate events but explores how the past continues to affect the pres- ent." And she has her own con- nection to the material. Her ex-husband, the renowned fertility doctor Francois Oliv- ennes, is Jewish: they were married for 17 years and have three children. And her former mother-in-law, who was hid-- den as a child during the war andwithwhom Scott Thomas remains close, was active in an organization that placed me- morial plaques around Paris. Has the actress ever pon- dered what might have hap-, pen~d to her own half-Jewish children had they been alive during World War II? "Since they were born, I haven't stopped thinking about it," she said. "In Paris, you can walk down the street and see the plaques commemorating children who were taken from their schools, from orphan- ages, from hospitals--unbe- lieveable. If this were 1942, my family would be in hiding, terrified of being turned in" Aidan Quinn plays another expatriate who is swept up by Jarrnond into Sarah's heart- breaking story. "Part of why we're here is to learn from how these things are allowed to happen, are manufactured to happen, and how they continue to happen through- out the world," he said. "In 'Sarah's Key.' we really burrow into ourhuman behavior, and it's an important message." The mark of the past on the present is prominent in Scott Thomas' own life, which was irrevocably altered when her father, a pilot in the Royal Navy, died in an airplane crash when she was 5. The ~ldest of her siblings, Scott Thomas was warned not to cry lest it upset the younger children. Six years later, her stepfather, also a pilot, died in almost identical circumstances. "You survive terrible grief," she said of the ordeal. At 18, the aspiring actress enrolled in London's Central School of Speech and Drama, but professors told her she wasn't talented enough for the profession. In an attempt to leave unhappy memories behind her, Scott Thomas relocated to Paris, enrolled in a French drama school, and met Olivennes, whom, she has said, became "her rock" during periods, of de- pression stemming from her childhood. His extended family, which consisted largely of Holocaust survivors, provided herwith a startling kind of education. In high school in England, Scott Thomas had learned little about the Final Solution: "It was not [considered] part of English history; certainly it wasn't in our bones," she said. Her husband's relatives "were people who had been in hiding during the war; who had survived or escaped camps; one branch of our family had actually caused a rebellion in "Treblinka." she said. "Every Sunday when we would have lunch together. all these stories, would be taken out and aired, and there would be a jousting of terrible stories. Of course now many of these people have passed away, or if they are still alive, they're in their 80s and 90s. But they really, really, really affected me." she said with a sigh. The survivors proved to be "fantastic role models" for how to live in the wake of trag- edy: "I didn't survive vicious- ness or anybody purposely injuring me and trying to ruin my life," she clarified. "But I have survived great emotional suffering." The Holocaust survivors impressed her with their will to endure and their "sense of the preciousness of life, which I found quite seductive in a way." Scott Thomas had long hoped to do a film that touched on the Shoah, but found the scripts she received "all turned out to be just a cheesy reproduction of events." Then she read "Sarah's Key" and met the film's director, Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who was well aware of the dangers of Holocaust movie "fatigue." He aimed to make a film that would resonate with younger generations, as well as a French public only beginning to acknowledge France's role in the Final Solution. "I personally would have had issues pretending to be suffering from [Nazi persecu- tion] when I'm just an actress." Scott Thomas said. "So when this project came along and had relevance to contempo- rary life, I fell in love with it. I didn't want anyone else to do it. It was mine." It helped that Scott Thom- as. in her words, "felt very close to the character," who becomes estranged from her husband as Sarah's story meshes with her own. "Julia is somebody who is reaching a crisis in her life. and I had separated from my husband [in 2005]," the actress said. "Julia is battling with her own sense of what her life is about, as well as the breakup of her marriage. Her search foie the truth is her own way of makingherselfbetter, because she's in such turmoil. She's using this search for Sarah and Sarah's life, as a kind of template for what her future Will be." Before making "Sarah's Key," Scott Thomas visited concentration camps around Krakow with her three chil- dren and one of her Ex's cous- ins, an 86-year-old survivor of numerous camps and a death march. Her performance is strong but understated. "What I liked about the way Gilles Paquet-Brenner dealt with this subject was that he made it unsentimental and really quite tough." she said. Naomi Pfefferman is arts and entertainment editor at The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. 'Key' unlocks Paris' guilty secrets of Shoah tor. Gilles Paquet-Brenner ating to write and has left a camps, some even caused a a Jewish musician defiantly Thomas' character says in the ("Pretty Things"), said from kindofpsychicscar. "'~Sarah's rebellion in Treblinka.'" she brandishes a ring filled with movie: "The truth hurts, but his Paris home. "But I felt 'Sarah's Key' is unique. because it explains how the past continues to affect the present. You have the character of JuIia. who is not Jewish and not even French, who realizes she has a strong connection to what happened in the Holocaust. And that is importantto show, especially to younger audicnc , gven if they feel these events are far removed, they can literally be next door." The novel and the film, along with the 2010 movie "'La Rafle" ("The Roundup"). are fictionalized stories spot- lighting the previously taboo subject of the roundup and the collaboration of French citizens in the Shoah. But when de Rosnay first learned of the so-called Vel d'Hiv, she said, she "did not know the role of the French police, nor how many chil- dren had been arrested." When she was in high school in Paris in the 1970s. that history was not taught. The first time she visited the site of the velodrome--which was torn down in 1959 and now houses an annex of the Ministry of the Interior--was a decade ago, while researching her2003 book. "Walls Remem- ber," exploring how buildings and streets can harbor dark secrets. "'As I stood in the Rue de Nehton, one of the saddest streets l have ever visited. I could feel the suffering coming back." she said. De Rosnay was disgusted and angered by how hard she had to search for the tiny plaque commemorating the Vel d'Hiv events. Those feel- ings fueled "Sarah's Key," which, she said. was excruci- personal quest and tragedy is symbolized in her key, which is the "key' to her terrible secret [about] Michel," the author said. "And Michel, in his cupboard left to die. is the horror of these little ones sent alone to their death and the silence that they have been wrapped up in so long." . Paquet-Brenner chose not to reveal in the film exactly what occurred in the cup- board. But he can under- stand his heroines' feelings of survivor's guilt. His own paternal grand- father, a German-Jewish musician living in France's free zone, was deported upon the Vichy takeover and died in the Majdanek concentra- tion camp. "I know what it is to be brought up in a family where you have the ghost of someone who has disap- peared." he "said. He was wary of taking a too-sentimental approach to the subject, which could make viewers feel manipulated and angry: "So I tried to stay real- istic and raw," he said. "'It was handheld cameras, with short lenses, right in the middle of the action. And we worked hard on the sound, because the sound was intensive in the velodrome. Survivors told me about the noise, the lights, the smells, which I tried to convey on screen." Oscar nominee Kristin Scott Thomas ["The English Patient.'" "'Four Weddings and a Funeral") also had personal connections to the story. Af- ter moving from London to Paris at 18 she married into a Jewish family whose older generation consisted primar- ily of Holocaust survivors. "They had been in hiding, in said from her home in France. And her mother-in-law had been active in the organiza- tion that had placed com- memorative plaques around Paris. "When we would all hhve lunch on a Sunday, all their experiences would be taken out and aired, and there would be a jousting of terrible stories, but at the same time a keen sense of the precious- ness of life." she said. It was an outlook that profoundly affected Scott Thomas, who had suffered from depression as a result of losing her father, and then her stepfather, both in plane crashes, when she was 5 and 10, respectively. She chose to make "Sarah's Key" "as a way for me to par- ticipate m the recounting of these stories as a non-Jewish person." she said, "I'm not saying you can't fictionalize them. but personally I would have had issues pretending I was one of those moth- ers brutally separated from their children [in the transit camps], when I am just an actress. Yet Scott Thomas' pain is real during the scene in which her character sees photographs of those vulner- able children at a Holocaust museum in Paris: in real life. it was the actress' first visit to the museum. It was while preparing to shoot this sequence that Paquet-Brenner's usually reticent mother disclosed a story about her late father: poison, declaring that only he will choose the time of his death. "At the Holocaust mu- seum, my mother also found her father's name on the wall, which was like the closing of a book," Paquet-Brenner said. "It was as if she could finally face her past. And while the production of the movie was painful for her. itwas also a healing pro- cess. It's exactly what Scott completely t know it's not. You The elder Brenner report- Learn more aboutJaime's, skin cancer story at edly committed suicide in Majdanek, using some poison he had hidden in his ring. The director subsequently added a scene to the movie in which you need it. Also as a result of the film. Paquet-Brenner has discovered that he has rela- tives in Israel: he plans on tracking them down when his 16-month-old daughter. Sun- nila is older. She was born the day the film wrapped. And her middle name is... Sarah. Naomi Pfefferman is arts and entertainment editor/'or the Jewlsh Journal of Oreater Los Angeles.