Reflections on “La Rafle” (The Roundup),
dir. Rose Bosch,
starring Jean Reno and Mélanie Laurent
This is the true story of the roundup by French authorities of some 13,000 Jews living in Paris in July 1942, initially gathered in the Vélodrome d’hiver and then transported to concentration camps to be “disposed of”.
In a film of this type it is the events themselves that are the “stars” – the depiction of these events is the focus of attention, the import and impact of which are served by the characters and their reactions to these events.
The first half hour or so shows Jewish families at home dealing with their daily lives in the face of ever-increasing social limitations and threats to their safety. Of course we have seen this kind of thing before, but here the disturbing revelation is that it was the Vichy government and the French police (under the direction of the Nazis), and some ordinary citizens who treated the Jews with the same contempt as the Nazis themselves.
The treatment of the Jews (forbidden entry to parks, loss of jobs and eventually expulsion from their own homes) is all the more shocking, realistic and striking because the “enemy” is not the traditional one we have come to expect and thus we share the shock, outrage and sense of injustice of the Jewish families.
Audiences like to feel they can take the moral high ground compared to the Nazis, but here we are made to see that it is not just the Nazis but also other nationalities and individuals who shared the awful indifference toward the lives and fates of Jewish citizens, attempting to justify deadly and vicious actions by reason of ancestry.
We are further stunned at the ways in which the representatives of authority took personal advantage of the plight of the Jews to steal and otherwise benefit from their situation.
The ease with which members of the police and public can be led is somewhat unsettling, or is it indicative of something more profound and disturbing?
Do people join in persecution in order to survive themselves? Is this a form of self-protection by distancing ourselves from those being persecuted, and siding with the strong rather than the right? Are principle and morality abandoned in times of difficulty?
Of course not everyone will consider common humanity and compassion as niceties that can’t be afforded in bad times, and there are several examples of such (which might be regarded as acts of heroism given the potential consequences for being willing to help) from a variety of characters – neighbours who try to save children, firemen who flout their orders to provide water to the malnourished detainees, citizens willing to fake papers to allow detainees to escape, and even the odd policeman who is willing to turn a blind eye to these attempts to escape.
The protestant nurse Annette Monod (Mélanie Laurent) is perhaps the best example of humanitarian compassion. She is willing to volunteer to care for the detainees and forms a particular attachment to the children (who numbered some 4,000). She pushes herself to the physical and mental limit, wishing to accompany the children on their final journey, but dissuaded by Doctor David Sheinbaum (Jean Reno), a Jewish doctor who will share the fate of the detainees.
However, there appears to have been little or no defiance at the top – those in authority offered no leadership except to pursue their instructions.
Of course, various other topics are touched upon in the course of the film – the living conditions forced upon the detainees, the persistence of hope in spite of circumstances, and the personal guilt of a father who feels he didn’t do enough to protect his family – these and many more themes are explored in the film, but the overwhelming “message” is the complicity of not just the Nazis in this dreadful crime against humanity.
By recounting this true story (and it is all the more sobering and terrifying to remember this is based on genuine events and people), the film is surely offering us an awful warning (by use of dramatic extremes) of the dangers of putting race, creed, nationality, religion, political ambition and self-advancement at the expense of others above humanity and civilisation.
I have to say I had doubts about the film during the first half hour when we are presented with homely scenes, sweet and cute kids, the gradual deterioration in living and social conditions, but faced with stoicism and some humour – all a bit manipulative. However, I then realised this was done not just to introduce and familiarise us with the various characters, but to contrast violently with their harsh and heartless treatment at the hands of the authorities.
The direction and writing (Rose Bosch) are very effective – the audience feels a sense of injustice and recoils in horror at various actions, and feels emotion and devastation at other moments. There is a beautifully crafted opposition of humanity and inhumanity made all the more chilling because of the apparent indifference to the fate of the victims, the casual application of the law without reflection or consideration of what it all means for the detainees, and a certain avoidance of responsibility as the authorities were only following orders and not initiating them.
There are many touching and powerful performances – Jean Reno and Gad Elmaleh are convincing and moving. Mélanie Laurent has more to do and delivers an at times heart-rending performance as Annette Monod who represents the voice of reason and humanity ignored by those in authority.
The film belongs, however, to the children who are affecting and natural.
This is a worthy, engaging and memorable film which shares some of Annette’s traits – it may have been largely ignored, but it also shows the value of perseverance and hope.
Many thanks for taking the time to read this page – I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Writing exercise on "La Rafle" (in French)
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