France has been slow to take responsibility for its complicity in the Nazis' murder of 75,000 French Jews. It was only in 1995 that president Jacques Chirac issued an official acknowledgment of national responsibility during a ceremony marking the notorious rafle du Vel d'Hiv, the round-up of 13,000 Parisian Jews by the French police in July, 1942.
So, La Rafle, a conscientiously accurate drama about that summer, is a necessary film in France and drew large French audiences (despite mixed reviews) when it appeared there last year. Elsewhere, however, it must feel merely repetitious: It is a paint-by-numbers Holocaust movie, scrupulously balanced, always cautious, occasionally clichéd, often sentimental.
Director Rose Bosch tells the story through the eyes of young Jo Weismann (Hugo Leverdez) - like many of the characters, he is closely based on a real person, in this case a survivor now in his eighties. His Polish-born parents may speak French with an accent but Jo and his buddies are typical Parisian school kids, mainly just annoyed by the yellow star they have to wear and their exclusion from the local park. So what if the baker hurls insults at them? The priest is wearing a star in solidarity.
Then, one night, the gendarmes come pounding on the door before the sympathetic concierge can warn his family and they find themselves in the hot, crowded and unsanitary conditions of the Vélodrome d'Hiver, the cycling stadium where deportees were held for three days before they were shipped to the French transit camps and ultimately to Auschwitz.
Bosch bends over backwards to show how French authorities were under pressure from the Germans and how individual French citizens rescued people. We hear anti-Semitic tirades on French radio; a French official says he is swamped with reports from people ratting out their Jewish neighbours, but what we see on screen is the Gentile who tries to pretend a neighbour's child is hers and the gendarme who whispers "Well played!" as he lets a Jewish teenager escape the Vélodrome with faked papers.
In scenes revealing the political negotiations at work - the Vichy government bargained over German demands for arrests, trying to save French-born Jews while handing over Eastern European immigrants - Marshal Pétain (Roland Copé) is little more than a cipher. There is only one real villain here: Pierre Laval (Jean-Michel Noirey), the wily head of government, is only too happy to collaborate.
Hitler appears too, in this French-German-Hungarian co-production: Udo Schenk makes him frighteningly powerful rather than ridiculously unhinged, but his presence in the film is utterly unnecessary, serving merely to offer the French viewer a comforting reminder of who is ultimately responsible.
Of course, there is a righteous Gentile at the centre of the story: in this case, she is another character closely based on the historical record, the Protestant nurse Annette Monod (the sympathetic Mélanie Laurent) who cares for the internees at the Vélodrome and follows them to the camp at Beaune-la-Rolande, where she is left mothering hundreds of children after the parents are sent ahead. As the children too are eventually herded into cattle cars - the Germans had little interest in arresting them but the French insist they wouldn't be left with orphans - Annette learns the truth about the work camps in the east and bicycles furiously to the station only to watch the train pull away.
Yes, we have seen it all before, but that criticism made, La Rafle is a film that does what it needs to: Like any honest Holocaust movie must, it creates sympathetic, three-dimensional characters that an audience will grow to like - and then kills them. Or in this instance makes them disappear ominously since Bosch does not follow the trains beyond the French border. Jo does survive but he loses both sisters and both parents. The purpose of La Rafle is to make any viewer experience directly the terror of the round-up and, in that, it succeeds.
La Rafle (The Round Up)
- Written and directed by Rose Bosch
- Starring Jean Reno, Mélanie Laurent and Gad Elmaleh
- Classification: PG