The Key to 'Sarah's Key'

Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, left, with his stars Kristin Scott Thomas and Aidan Quinn.

For Gilles Paquet-Brenner, 36,  the French filmmaker best known for for Pretty Things (2001), his good twin/bad twin thriller starring a newcomer named Marion Cotillard, it was time to make something more "substantial." He was 33 when he read Tatiana de Rosnay's novel Sarah's Key. The story of French Jews rounded up in Nazi-occupied Paris and sent to Auschwitz was a coup de foudre, a thunderbolt, to the heart.

"I completely identified," says the cow-eyed auteur on a recent visit to Philadelphia. "My grandfather was a German Jew, a musician, who married my Parisian Catholic grandmother, also a musician." Grandpere was turned over to Gestapo authorities by the French and died in the death camps. "My mother grew up without her father. I grew up without a grandfather." There was a mangled branch on his family tree.

Sarah's Key stars Kristin Scott Thomas as a contemporary journalist reporting about the French roundup of Jews in 1942 when she discovers a disturbing personal connection to the events dramatized in emotional flashbacks. "There have been very few French films about the deportation of Jews during the Occupation," says Paquet-Brenner, whose movie is generating Oscar buzz.

He can count those films on one hand: Louis Malle's Au Revoir, Les Enfants, Joseph Losey's Mr. Klein and the underknown Les Guichets du Louvre, an underknown 1974 film. In France, he says, the idea of "Holocaust fatigue," the idea that the audience is overserved with narratives about the eradication of Jews, is unknown. For him, Sarah's Key is not a Holocaust film. It is a film about those mangled branches on the family tree.