CINEMA: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
The Round-Up (La Rafle)
, June 11, 2011
A 2010 French film, rated M, is reviewed by Bill James
After the German occupation of France in World War II, a collaborationist government was set up under Marshal Pétain and Pierre Laval, which was known as the Vichy regime (1940-44).
Conservative and pro-Nazi, it partook of the anti-Semitism which had infected France ever since the Dreyfus Case at the beginning of the 20th century, and aimed to reverse the legacy of the French Revolution of the late 18th century.
The storyline of the movie La Rafle (The Round-Up) deals with an episode of July 1942, when French collaborationist police and paramilitaries rounded up 13,000 Jews on behalf of the Germans.
The authorities incarcerated the families in the Paris velodrome for weeks, with no adequate accommodation, food, water, medical care or sanitation.
As the next stage on their route to the death camps of Eastern Europe, the Jews were interned in a camp south of Paris, after which they were separated into men, women and children before being dispatched in cattle-trucks on the rail journey to their fate.
By concentrating on the story of a non-Jewish nurse who volunteers to care for the children, and two or three of the families, the film is able to personalise the tragedy.
Unfortunately, the same historical event has been dealt with very recently at the cinema in Sarah’s Key.
I say “unfortunately”, because both films are very good, and both illuminate an aspect of modern history (with all its surrounding and ongoing implications) which deserves to be more widely known.
It would be a pity if people decided not to bother with The Round-Up because they had already watched Sarah’s Key. Please don’t hesitate to see both.
World War II remains a very sensitive issue in France. On the one hand, there is the heroism of Charles de Gaulle, the Free French and the Resistance, and on the other there is the sorry record of collaboration, of which the Vichy regime is the most inglorious feature.
The film’s makers are determined not to let Pétain and Laval off the hook, and do not hold back in graphically depicting the brutal behaviour of their Vichy paramilitary minions and the poisonous gloating of some ordinary citizens.
At the same time, they portray (with what one desperately hopes is historical accuracy) a range of brave and decent French Gentiles, which includes a Roman Catholic priest, a Protestant nurse, a policeman, a soldier, a group of firemen, and a number of civilians, among them a pair of prostitutes.
One of the film’s great strengths is its evocation of locale. The hopelessly overcrowded tiers of seating shown in the big, ranging shots of the interior of the velodrome, are suggestive of Dante’s descending circles of his Inferno.
The cavortings of Hitler, Eva Braun, Himmler and other Nazis with the angelic Goebbels children at the Berchtesgaden, up in the clear sunshine of the Bavarian Alps, is juxtaposed with images of the filth and deprivation suffered by the Jewish children in the velodrome and camp.
Sophisticated cinema this is not. The Round-Up does not attempt to mess with its audience’s minds, and tells a straight story, with no character development, only the most obvious of moral ambiguities, no plot surprises, and no fancy camera- work.
There is even a happy ending of sorts, in that the nurse who plays the central, integrating character is reunited after the war with the two — two — Jewish children of her group who survived.