For decades after the war, French filmmakers avoided the subject of their country’s collaboration during the Nazi Occupation. The late Louis Malle helped break the silence with his chilling teenage-fascist saga “Lacombe Lucien” (1974) and movingly autobiographical “Au Revoir Les Enfants” (1987).
The latter film famously centered on the wartime boarding-school friendship between a Jewish boy and a Catholic boy, and was all the more wrenching for its main characters’ innocence and naiveté.
Children are the least culpable and most defenseless of victims, a fact that director Rose Bosch parlays to great emotional effect in her ambitious fact-based drama, “La Rafle” (“The Roundup”). An often-nuanced depiction of compassion and cruelty under pressure, the movie does not flinch from indicting the French men and women who helped uproot and deport their Jewish neighbors. Over and over, it asks what kind of people could inflict such suffering on children.
Bosch recreates the spring and summer of 1942, when some 13,000 Jews were swept up in the city and suburbs of Paris over two days and eventually sent to Auschwitz. German soldiers handled the final stages, but they would have had no one to murder without the acquiescence of Marshal Pétain and the efforts of the French police.
“La Rafle” introduces us to a rather dizzying array of characters in its opening scenes, including 11-year-old Jo Weissman, his carefree friends and his worried parents and siblings. The Montmarte lads can’t quite grasp the meaning of the yellow star, but everyone else worries that further ignominies are in store.
Alas, not Jo’s bookish father, a World War I vet who refuses to believe that the French would allow the persecution of its Jews. However, he’s not privy to the shadowy deals that the Vichy government negotiates, not only to hand over the so-called “stateless” Jews who fled to France from Germany and Poland in the preceding years, but French nationals as well.
In a slight misjudgment, for it’s almost impossible to depict Hitler and Himmler at this late date without tipping into parody, Bosch shows the head Nazis discussing the French Jews with but a fraction of Petain’s callous disregard. We discern that it’s easy to see people as an abstraction—and to decide their fate—from the distant vantage point of the Wolf’s Lair or Vichy headquarters in central France.
Bosch takes pains to differentiate between the fascist youth corps, who take brutal pleasure in venting their anti-Semitism, and the French cops, many of whom are ambivalent, if not reluctant, participants in this heartless travesty. Amid the pervasive villainy, some people retained their humanity.
The most vivid example is a fresh-out-of-school Protestant nurse (Melanie Laurent of “Inglorious Bastards” and “The Concert”) who’s assigned to the Vélodrome d’Hiver where the arrested Jews have been collected and dumped. Her dedication to these innocents, especially the children, compels her to accompany them (and a Jewish doctor played by Jean Reno) on the next suffering-laden step of their journey.
Once the majority of the characters are under one roof at the Vélodrome, “La Rafle” snaps into linear focus and retains that intensity all the way through the final shot. That last image, incidentally, is of a child staring hard at the camera—at the audience, that is—in a wordless “J’accuse.”
“La Rafle” was a box-office hit in France, which suggests that moviegoers accepted the present-day challenge implicit in the child’s eyes: What is France doing about anti-Semitism today to head off another roundup?
Michael Fox is a freelance film critic.
“The Round Up” will screen at the Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Festival on March 29, followed by “Reel Talk” with Nicole Szyrman Illouz, a survivor. See below.
Reel Talk with “Round Up” survivor
“The Round Up” will be screened at the Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Festival on Tuesday, March 29, 7 p.m., at Bow-Tie Cinemas, Palace 17 in Hartford. For information visit www.hjff.org. For tickets, call the box office at (860) 231-6316.
The screening will be followed by “Reel Talk” with and Prof. Avi Patt of the University of Hartford and Nicole Szyrman Illouz . Born in Paris in 1939, Illouz, her mother and grandmother narrowly escaped the 1942 mass arrests of Jews. Now living in Enfield, Illouz will share her family’s true story of hiding, escape, survival and liberation.