Over the years there have been many movies that have examined the Jewish Holocaust. Some have dealt with the horrors surrounding the Nazi’s brutal and barbaric campaign while others have focused on the individual stories of heroism and survival. Due to the number of these films you would be hard-pressed to find an angle of the Holocaust that hasn’t been covered. But that does nothing to lessen my love for these movies that remind us of what were some of our world’s darkest days.
For me, when a movie about the Holocaust is done well it can be one of the more heartrending film experiences. Even with a familiar subject, if a director can tell a good story and lend their own unique voice to the film, I’m emotionally invested. Such was the case with “La Rafle” which is translated “The Round Up”. Much like “Sarah’s Key” (review coming very soon), a movie that came out the same year, “La Rafle” is set in Paris during the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. This was the mass arrest of over 13,000 Jews, mostly women and children, by the French police and secret service. Most were taken to the Vel’ d’Hiv stadium and kept in inhumane conditions before being taken to internment camps. Nearly all were eventually sent to and murdered in Auschwitz by the Nazis.
“La Rafle” starts with a bit of fractured storytelling. It hops back and forth between the different people who we will follow as the story moves forward. The central focus is at first on the Weismanns, a Jewish family living in Paris’ Montmartre district. Schmuel (Gad Elmaleh) is an artist and devoted father. Sura (Raphaëlle Agogué) is a tender and loving mother. They have two daughters – one loves ballet while the other is spunky and outspoken. Then there is 11-year old Jo (Hugo Leverdez), their warm-hearted son growing up in occupied Paris. He’s playful and a bit rambunctious especially when he’s with his pals Simon and Noé. We see a lot of the story through Jo’s young and innocent eyes.
There are also breakaways to a young Protestant nurse named Annette Monod (Mélanie Laurent), a character who becomes a central focus in the second half of the film. But there are also scenes featuring a smug Adolph Hitler carrying on the facade of a family man while secret meetings are taking place at his command – meetings that put the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in motion. That leads to the morning of July 16th, 1942 when the French police under Vichy orders do the unthinkable. The film takes us through the horrible arrests and “processing” of that morning and then puts us in Vel’ d’Hiv stadium with the Weismanns and the others we’ve come to know.
Annette comes to the stadium and volunteers medical help. While she’s there she develops close relationships with Jo and some of the other children. She’s also inspired by a dedicated Jewish doctor named Sheinbaum (Jean Reno). It’s here that the atrocities become real to her and she sets out to do everything she can to help. All of these characters have their paths connected by this one truly horrific event – something that will scar them, the country, and the entire world.
“La Rafle” works because writer and director Roselyne Bosch keeps her focus on the characters. She leaves the graphic depictions of the violence and barbarism to other movies yet its looming reality is always with this film. The tension of the real life events soak every scene even if they aren’t visually depicted. I found that to be very effective. Bosch wants us to connect and invest in the characters and once we do that, the emotion and the intensity flows. Now the movie does feel polished and some have criticized it for its lack of edge. Their are scenes where that criticism is fair but overall I think it misses what Bosch is going for.
Perhaps the most powerful component of the film is that each of its characters were real life people who faced the roundup and what followed. Bosch used their real names and their true stories. For me that just added to the stinging realism. The wonderful costume and set design also worked to draw me in. The shots of Montmartre seems plucked right out of that decade and every person fit perfectly in the period they were representing.
The performances are another strong point. I’ve grown to be a Mélanie Laurent fan. After seeing her in a handful of French and American films, I find her to be an impressive actress. I also really appreciated Raphaëlle Agogué’s work. There’s a subtlety and humble beauty to her performance that really worked for me. I also liked Gad Elmayeh who brings a very believable and well written father to life. I also have to mention the performances from the children. They play a big role in this film and without their solid work the movie would have suffered.
I wish I could say this was a flawless 5 star movie but there were a couple of issues I had with it. The movie seems to assume that the audience is familiar with the subject. Now being a French production I’m sure many of the film’s bigger audiences were very familiar with the history. Having read a decent amount about the events, I was pretty knowledgable as well. But I still found myself unable to follow some of the scenes featuring the planning and the politics between the Vichy and the Nazis. They aren’t all that well constructed which was a little frustrating. I also felt the film slowed down a little too much in the middle. It certainly didn’t kill the film’s effect but it was noticeable. Aside from these gripes, “La Rafle” strikes every chord and tells a truly incredible story.
While in Paris last year my wife and I took time to visit the Shoah Memorial. It was one of the most sobering experiences of my life. This movie reminded me of that visit and of the terrible events faced by the Jewish people in Paris. “The Round Up” is a pretty polished film but its also reverent, sober, and responsible. It’s received some unfair criticism and it’s a film that has went unseen by many here in America. That’s a shame. For me it was wonderfully done and it’s an easy film to recommend.