Kristin Scott Thomas conjures images of the quintessentially British thespian. She portrayed upper crust or reserved characters in films such as “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “The English Patient,” for which she received a 1997 Oscar nomination. In previous newspaper articles, writers also have described her as reserved.
But Scott Thomas was thoughtful, even passionate while discussing her new movie, “Sarah’s Key,” which will screen once in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in advance of a nationwide opening.
“I don’t see it as a Holocaust film,” said the 51-year-old, 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 ‘Shoah,’ for example, I’ve found most films reconstructing those events to be rather pitiful.”
Scott Thomas said she was drawn to “Sarah’s Key” because it “doesn’t just recreate events but explores how the past continues to affect the present.” She plays American-born journalist Julia Jarmond.
And she has her own connection to the material. Her ex-husband, the renowned fertility doctor Francois Olivennes, is Jewish; they were married for 17 years and have three children. And her former mother-in-law, who was hidden as a child during the war and with whom Scott Thomas remains close, was active in an organization that placed memorial plaques around Paris.
Has the actress ever pondered what might have happened 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 orphanages, from hospitals — unbelievable. If this were 1942, my family would be in hiding, terrified.”
Her husband’s extended family, which included many Holocaust survivors, provided Scott Thomas with a startling education. In high school in England, she 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 in-laws “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.
The 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 Holocaust, 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 persecution] when I’m just an actress,” Scott Thomas said. “So when this project came along and had relevance to contemporary life, I fell in love with it. I didn’t want anyone else to do it. It was mine.”