Unlocked Memories

It was July 16, 1942, and a defining moment for the French people. On that day, that singular day, some 13,000 French Jews were rounded up and taken to the Velodrome d'Hiver, a sports stadium, where they were kept in unspeakable conditions for days, absent water and food and sanitation. They were then transported to Beaune-la-Rolande, a transit camp, where families were separated, children from parents, wives from husbands. Their ultimate destination was Auschwitz. Most were never heard from again.

What is generally not known is that the French police and the French government collaborated with the Germans in the roundup. It is an astonishing and incontrovertible fact that went unspoken for decades in France.

"Sarah's Key" tells the story of one family, most especially Sarah (Melusine Mayance), 10 years old, who, with her mother and younger brother, hear a loud knock on the door in the dark of night. Two French policemen, examining their identification papers, tell them to pack; they will be leaving immediately.

On impulse, gripped by fear, Sarah takes Thomas, only 4, and locks him in their bedroom cupboard, promising to return shortly; he must not make any noise and he must remain hidden. And with the cupboard key clutched in her hand, she follows her mother and father out onto the street. They are taken to the Vel d'Hiv, as it was called. Sarah, ever mindful of the key and her promise, is frantic to return for Thomas.

And so the journey of Sarah Starzynski begins. Her story is woven together with that of Julia Jarmon (Kristin Scott Thomas), a journalist, who is writing a story in 2002 for the 60th anniversary of the Vel d'Hiv roundup. Julia begins to research the events surrounding that infamous day and soon discovers more truth than she ever contemplated. Her quest to unravel the story of Sarah grows ever more painful and disturbing, haunted by the question: How could this have happened? How could the French have been complicit in such an atrocity?

Julia interviews a man who is charged with chronicling the events, and he remarks to her that he is committed to putting a face to each person lost and he rejects any attempt to express what occurred in terms of numbers. And it is when he hands her a photo of Sarah and Thomas, yellow stars sewn to their coats, that she becomes profoundly moved and disturbed and committed to Sarah's story.

What makes the film ever more powerful and moving is that it is, in great part, told from the point of view of Sarah. Her journey that took her into the heart of darkness, devastating and horrible, is inexplicable to those who bore witness. It would change Sarah's life forever, as it changed Julia's.

Ultimately the key becomes a metaphor, holding the promise of opening the cupboard door. But also, Julia concludes, that key holds the promise of unlocking memories, no matter the pain inherent in their revelation.


Consider the still-memorable template: The year is 1918, World War I is under way, and for almost two years a pandemic, also known as the Spanish Flu, grips the world.

It's origin is still unknown, its impact staggering. Some 500 million were infected and 50 to 100 million died. Panic swept the globe; white masks, a signature image, were ubiquitous.

Recall "Outbreak," released some years back, which opened with an image of an infected person sneezing in a movie theater. It was a hold-your-breath moment as the small particles went aerosol.

"Contagion" has countless such moments, small and large. The film opens with a dark screen and the sound of a dry, hacking cough. Then the image of Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes into focus, her face a sheen of sweat. She's in a nightclub in Macao, gambling, having drinks with business associates, and talking intimately to someone not her husband on a cell phone. She coughs again and is asked if she feels all right. She insists that it's just jet lag.

At that moment, the audience knows more than she does: this will not end well. Everything she touches, every person she comes into contact with, warrants a tight shot and each image is, as is the movie, chilling.

The film also flirts with apocalypse, touching on how fragile are society's rules of law and decorum. It soon becomes evident in "Contagion" that just beneath the patina of civilization resides the instinct for survival at any cost, a Darwinian response that can, like the virus, be just as lethal. The thread of civility is slender. Of course we live as if it were otherwise. However, one event can change everything. "Contagion" is about such an event.

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