by writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner
La Châtre, March 1943. My grandfather, Ludwig Brenner, a musician, a German Jew from Berlin married to a French Catholic violinist, is arrested by the French police. He will die in Majdanek a few days later.
Paris, March 2007. In my living room, I open for the first time Tatiana de Rosnay's book. A couple of hours later, I am halfway through and I already know I want to make a movie out of it.
I am French. I am an atheist. I lost three members of my family during the holocaust. I am from Jewish and German background. I am the perfect guy to make that film... but can I do it right? Does the world need another holocaust movie?
I was lucky enough to read Sarah's Key before it became a worldwide phenomenon and I was blown away. It was exactly the kind of material I was looking for at the time. I wanted to reconciliate entertainment and substance. I didn't want to make a superhero movie, but I didn't want to make a boring movie either. And here is this "holocaust thriller," a fiction backed by remarkable journalist work by Tatiana, that brings light to what we call in France "la rafle du Vel d'Hiv." The infamous round up is something that we, the general French public, knew without knowing it. We knew it existed, but we didn't know the details. We knew that president Chirac made that speech to apologize...wait a minute. To apologize?
July 16, 1942. The French police arrest 13,000 Jews in Paris, park them in the Velodrome d'Hiver in inhumane conditions, and send them to the camps. Even worse, they don't know what to do with the children, so they send them to the camps too. Most of them died.
When I was a child myself, it was all about the Nazis. But the truth is that it was not only about the Nazis. In many occupied European countries, local governments collaborated with the Germans, and sometimes acted on their own. Anti-Semitism rose in Europe during the thirties and France was no exception. But France was seen as the country of freedom; it represented an ideal, and that's why my grandfather came here. And that's also why he refused to flee to the United States when things got really ugly. He thought he was safe here. A lot of them thought so.
We, French, love to teach people lessons. Maybe it's time for us to reevaluate some shadowy areas of our past. It's not because we should feel guilty. Most of us were not even born then. It's because our past defines us, and it's because we need to know our past to build our future. That's what I liked the most about the book—the universal message that any of us could someday be related to any war victim, anywhere in the world. Julia, Kristin Scott Thomas' character, is a non-Jew, non-French journalist living in Paris today. And the way she sees the world totally changes once she discovers Sarah's story. Sarah was ten years old in 1942. My mother was two.
Paris, 17th district, September 2011. The end credits roll in front of the film crew, friends and family. My mother cries. She never liked to talk about all this. And, busy as I was making this movie, I forgot to tell her this little detail... The film is dedicated to her father, her uncle, and her grandfather. She was incredibly brave so far, not a tear during the first 110 minutes. But she is caught off guard when she sees their names on the black screen. And she finally cries, after 111 minutes and 68 years.
Maybe I made this movie for my mother. My mother and the rest of the world.