Key Shots: Camera Angles and Technique in SARAH’S KEY
15 January 2012
In mid-July of 1942, as WWII began to rage, French officials, in accordance with German decree, arrested over 13,000 French Jews and forced them into either the Velodrome d’hiver (an indoor cycling track) or the nearby Drancy internment camp. In both places, living conditions were inhumane. In time, Jews in both locations were forced on trains to Auschwitz where they were exterminated. This horrifying incident is known as the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup.
Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s Sarah’s Key centers on this appalling moment in France’s history. The film jumps between two characters: Sarah Starzynski (Melusine Mayance), a Jewish child living in Paris during 1942, and Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), a middle-aged writer and Vel’ d’Hiv researcher living in Paris in 2009. Sarah and her family are arrested during the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, but, in trying to save her younger brother Michel, Sarah locks him in a secret closet in the Starzynski’s apartment so the police cannot find him. Holding the key to the closet tight in her hands, Sarah and her parents endure the deplorable conditions in the Velodrome d’hiver, as well as separation in a transit camp while en route to Auschwitz. After the separation, but before being transported to Auschwitz, Sarah becomes very sick and gets cared for by another little girl in the camp. The two become close and Sarah devises a plan to escape, as she feels it is her responsibility to return to her apartment with the key and free her brother from his hiding spot. Miraculously, the two girls escape and get taken in by an elderly couple. Sadly, the little girl with Sarah become ill and dies from diphtheria; yet, Sarah, resiliently, does not allow any of the traumas inflicted upon her break her focus from freeing Michel. In a short time, the elderly couple takes Sarah back to her apartment, but, tragically, Sarah opens the closet and finds her brother’s remains.
Consistently using the cross-cutting technique, the film also follows Julia, who is about to move into a new apartment in Paris, which belonged to her husband’s family. Not long into the film, Julia learns she is pregnant, which thrills her, but disappoints her husband. This causes a rift in their relationship, and pushes Julia to immerse herself in her research and writing. While investigating the Velodrome d’Hiver and the Jews incarcerated there in July 1942, Julia begins wonder if a Jewish family occupied her newly inherited apartment during the roundup. She discovers her apartment belonged to the Starzynski’s, but the building’s landlady rented to out to Julia’s husband’s family, the Tezacs, after the Starzynski family’s arrest. Conflicted, Julia desperately searches for information about the Starzynski family. She learns both parents were killed in Auschwitz, but cannot find any record for Sarah or her younger brother Michel. From her father-in-law, Julia learns of Michel’s fate, and is given a file which leads her on an international search for information about the little girl who escaped the Holocaust.
The most riveting parts of the film are of Sarah’s experience in the Velodrome d’Hiver and transit camp, and the way Paquet-Brenner captures the settings with his camera greatly adds to cinematic experience. Paquet-Brenner frequently juxtaposes hand-held shots, which place the audience directly in the middle of the action, with crane shots, which elevates the audience from the action. Moreover, the director uses a tracking crane shot with a bird’s eye angle (looking directly down at the action) in the Velodrome, which not only elevates, but also removes the audience from the action more so than a standard crane shot.
During the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup and subsequent incarceration in the transit camp, the hand-held camera technique is frequently used and the effect of this technique is a feeling of fear and confusion. As people move quickly all around the camera, figures come in and out of focus, thus enhancing the chaos of the scene. When Sarah’s father is separated from her and her mother, and later when Sarah and her mother separate, the hand-held camera technique is used to convey the danger present in the scene, as well as the tragedy. Conversely, the crane shots looks down upon the action from an elevated perspective. These shots are used repeatedly, such as when the Starzynski family enters the Velodrome. These shots help the audience to take in the scale of what happened at Velodrome, but do so from a safe, removed perspective. Paquet-Brenner knows he must alternate between the two types of camera techniques. If he only used hand-held shots the emotion would be too great and the audience would, likely, become unable to continue watching the film; however, if he only used crane shots the audience could not bond as strongly with the characters because of their removed perspective.
At one point, Paquet-Benner uses a crane shot with a bird’s eye angle which tracks in the Velodrome above bleachers of Jews sitting, praying, and laying down on the hard, dirty benches. These people are amid human waste, buckets of blood, dirt, and abandoned belongings. Although cinema does not (yet) offer smell to its audiences, the graphic visual images evoke the putrid stench present in this former cycling arena. In using this shot Paquet-Brenner shows his audience the bigger picture, the bird’s eye view, of the Velodrome. While the audience becomes invested in the Starzynski family’s struggle, this shot, like many of the crane shots, reminds the audience of the thousands of people, not just fictional characters in a movie, actually experienced these conditions, conditions not even suitable for animals. Reminding the audience of all the people in the Velodrome adds gravity to this gruesome event in history.
Moreover, Paquet-Brenner also uses this tracking bird’s eye crane shot to remove the audience emotionally, as much as he can, from the Velodrome. The scene at the Velodrome is visually traumatic for the audience, so Paquet-Brenner is careful with not only what he shows, but also how he shows it. Too much hand-held camerawork would be an emotional avalanche. Looking straight down shows the audience shows a lot, but it also shows them everything from the most removed perspective possible. The camera, and therefore the audience, is safe from the horror below. Additionally, an audience member could never actually see from this perspective in reality (that’s why it’s called a “bird’s eye view,” because only the birds can see from it as they fly). Thus, in showing the audience the Velodrome from this unnatural angle, viewers are even further away from the action because they are seeing from an impossible perspective.
After these distinct uses of crane shots and hand-held camera techniques, Sarah Starzynski and her friend escape the transit camp and Paquet-Brenner’s camera technique changes to reflect the hope, power, and, of course, freedom of their getaway. As the two girls run from the barbed wire that once bound them, they sprint through a wheat field, with stalks of wheat waist-high. To capture this, Paquet-Brenner uses a tracking low-angle shot, nearly a complete reversal of the crane shots. With this low angle shot, the camera looks up at the girls and captures them running. By looking up at the girls the camera conveys their power. Also, because the camera is looking up from the ground, the shot is nearly overwhelmed with the bright, clouded, blue sky above the girls. The vastness of the sky, in this shot, represents hope and freedom; the sky is boundless, as are the girls’ lives now that there are free.
When juxtaposed, it’s clear the consistent use of converse camera techniques and angles are in consideration of the audience’s emotional investment in Sarah’s Key. Sarah’s experience while incarcerated and her escape are, arguably, the most emotional parts of the narrative. Not only because the audience becomes invested in the child, but because Sarah represents the millions of Jews who were mercilessly massacred during the Holocaust. Paquet-Brenner treats this subject with care, allowing the audience to invest emotionally, but knowing when, and how, to pull back.
Toward the beginning of Sarah’s Key, Julia tells her editor, when trying to acquire a larger layout for her piece on Vel’ d’Hiv, he should give her permission to write a longer article because “readers love history.” That is not only true of magazine readers, but readers of cinema, too, love films, like Sarah’s Key, centering of major historical events. Like Julia, Paquet-Benner takes his time to get the layout just right. Perhaps, as some critics suggest, Paquet-Benner makes the film a bit longer and drawn out than others would; yet, that aside, the film is constructed with consideration and focus, namely through many of this subtle and effective camera techniques, to convey Sarah’s Key on the screen.