About three-quarters of France’s Jews survived the Holocaust, a much higher percentage than the Netherlands, Hungary, and of course, Poland. Still, the collaborationist Vichy government did not hesitate to turn Jews over to the Nazis, and plenty of French citizens stood calmly by as their neighbors were arrested. France has struggled for decades with its history of collaboration and resistance, at first denying that any French citizen supported the Germans, with films and books suggesting everyone was in the Resistance. The country’s intellectuals then veered in the other direction, exposing the extent of enthusiastic French collaboration, which eventually resulted in a government apology in 1995. “La Rafle,” a big, epic treatment of the roundup (the meaning of the title) of 13,000 Parisian Jews, including 4,000 children, into the Velodrome d’Hiver, is part of that revisionist trend. From the Vel d’Hiv, they were moved to different internment camps and eventually east to Auschwitz, where almost all of them were killed or died.
“La Rafle” was a big hit in France and has won numerous audience-favorite awards at film festivals. It’s not hard to understand why. Well meaning and sincere, the film feels like a television historical docu-drama. It may be simplistic, but it is an effective introduction to the subject for an audience that might find more complex films too disturbing or confusing.
The film opens in 1942 in a picturesque Montmartre, where a young boy is playing with his friends on the street. Jo (Hugo Leverdez) is a good-looking, mischievous lad who resents wearing a yellow star on his coat. He teases the grumpy baker, who clearly does not like Jews, and plays tricks on the shopkeepers with his pals. His parents, Schmuel (Gad Elmaleh) and Sura (Raphaelle Agogue) are an attractive, romantic pair, and there are a wide variety of neighbors and family friends as well. All of these characters are types, however, rather than fully developed human beings, so it doesn’t matter much that it’s hard to keep them all straight. Each stands for something: the Zionist, the Trotskyite, the anti-Semite, the kindly old woman, the thug.
Directed by Rose Bosch and produced by Ilan Goldman, “La Rafle” is cinematic history done in broad strokes for an audience that knows little about the impact of the Nazi occupation of France. Interspersed with the story of Jo and his family are scenes of Nazi officials and French police, planning the roundup. The film divides the population into the good people who sympathize with the victimized Jews and the bad ones who want to get rid of them and take their belongings. The best of them all, almost saintly in her devotion to her patients, is the Protestant nurse Annette Monod (based on a historical figure), played soulfully by Melanie Laurent. Along with the Jewish Dr. David Sheinbaum (Jean Reno), Annette struggles to care for people kept for days in the sports stadium without enough food or water or sanitation facilities. “Only four suicides so far and no fighting,” a police officer reports with satisfaction.
When the Jews are moved to Beaune-la-Rolande internment camp, Annette goes along with them. The conditions in the camp are just as bad as in the Vel d’Hiv and perhaps worse. Disease and malnutrition are rampant. The adults along with Dr. Sheinbuam are soon sent east, so Annette and some other nurses remain to care for the children. Laurent is a fine actress, and her sad eyes and long, thin face accentuate the anguish she feels as she recognizes the future the children in her care face.