The biblical book of Exodus begins the ominous story of the Israelites’ descent into slavery with the following words: “A new generation arose” in Egypt that did not know Joseph. Well, a new generation has arisen in France, and they, unlike their parents and certainly their grandparents, are willing to remember and to confront the past.
There is a paradox in the Holocaust: The innocent feel guilty and the guilty feel innocent. There is a vast literature of survivor guilt, but a scant literature of perpetrator guilt. In France, the new generation may not feel guilty — they have no reason to feel guilty — but they certainly feel a responsibility to confront the French past.
“La Rafle” (“The Round Up”), a film by Roselyne Bosch that stars Jean Reno and Melanie Laurent, won the audience award for best film when it had its L.A. premier at the 2011 Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. The film begins with the statement that the events portrayed happened. And so they did.
A word of historiography: In the aftermath of World War II, France developed two comforting myths, the myth of résistance and the myth that Charles De Gaulle and his forces actually liberated France. The truth was rather different: French police had rounded up Jews, deported them to transit camps and from there to death camps — it was French police, not the Germans. And French men and women collaborated, participating in both the persecution of the Jews and their roundup. French leadership in collaborationist Vichy France, headed by World War I hero Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain, were willing collaborators with the German regime and not, as they had been depicted, reluctant participants in the murder of their Jews.
The myth of résistance collapsed, in part, when the full history of former French President François Mitterrand was revealed; the trials of Klaus Barbie and Maurice Papon made French collaboration undeniable.
This set the stage for the moving new film “La Rafle,” which depicts the Parisian roundup of Jews on July 16 and 17, 1942, and their confinement in the Vel d’Hiv, a French sports stadium, before their deportation to a transit camp and from there to the “East.” The specific death camp remains unmentioned, but the destination — death by gassing — is an ever-present shadow throughout.
Like the best of French films, the work is textured. We get a wonderful feel for life in Paris, and an even better sense of Jewish life under German occupation. Jewish children become the dramatic center of the film, and their lives in the early days of occupation are portrayed in school, at home and in the street through a series of small vignettes, showing them seemingly oblivious to their new and constricted circumstances. The texture of the film is also reflected in the response of the French population, first to the persecution and later to the deportation. Even within the Vel d’Hiv, we don’t have a one-dimensional portrayal of the French. Some French men and women internalize Nazi anti-Semitism and use the occupation as a welcome opportunity to express their own anti-Semitism without restraint. Others are protective of their Jews — some effectively so, most ineffectively.
Sensitively portrayed by Laurent, the heroine of the story is a French non-Jewish nurse who comes into the Vel d’Hiv to treat the Jews. She is first introduced to us at the early stages of the film when the dean of the nursing school instructs her students to allow the Jews to escape should the Germans enter the premises. She volunteers to work in the Vel d’Hiv, and it is through her innocent eyes that we encounter the inhumanity of the French confinement of the Jews.
We are taken inside the roller rink, where Jews are hungry and dirty, their nerves at the cracking point. Children play, parents fret, the pious pray and study and the thousands of Jewish prisoners swing between despair and hope, resignation and lethargy, defiance and self-help. For a moment, the peace of Shabbat descends on the Vel d’Hiv, as some Jewish women light their candles, but one can transcend such impossible conditions only for a moment. Some French firemen give water to the parched Jews; their fire chief covers for them and allows them to call in sick so that they can distribute the last notes of the desperate Jews who have trusted them to carry their messages forth. Their calls for help go unheeded.
And while there are heroes and villains, there is also what students of Holocaust literature and historians call the “gray zone.” A collaborationist policeman, who previously was enthusiastic at the deportation and tried to force himself on an aristocratic beautiful young Jewish woman, shades his eye as she seeks to escape the stadium.
“La Rafle” does not shade the painful truth of the experience. The conditions in the Vel d’Hiv are horrific; the mood of the Jews swings wildly, and we witness firsthand the filth and violence of their condition as they wait for the ordeal to end. Their deportation to the transit camp appears a welcome relief, as the Jews think that they have survived the worst, only to encounter more horrific conditions in the camp.
“La Rafle” avoids giving the audience a simple love story. The nurse is infatuated with an older Jewish doctor (played by Reno) who struggles valiantly but in vain to provide medical care to the prisoners. There is no time for love; admiration, affection and a joint sense of mission must suffice. She volunteers to go to the transit camp; he will not permit her to go to the death camp. She is gentile and can live; he is Jewish and will die.
And the children whom we have seen before in the Jewish quarter and in the Vel d’Hiv come center stage in the camps, as first their mothers are deported, and then their fathers. When they are left behind, because French leaders do not want to have it perceived that they kill children, the children form a supportive community among themselves.
We go with these Jews to the transit camps, with their own set of horrific conditions. We witness the separation of husbands from wives, the confinement of children in separate barracks and, ultimately, the shipping out of women followed by men and, only later, by children, which the French officials describe as a humanitarian gesture that will unite mother and child — albeit in the ovens of Auschwitz.
French officialdom is seen in its glorious vanity looking for a way to cast off responsibility, precisely as they are not just compliant, but cooperative, in the murder of their own Jews.
While all the details of the film may not be precisely historically accurate, the true ethos of their acts and the nature of their pretense is brought to life on the screen.
The film does not take us inside the gates of Auschwitz, for it is there that French history ends and German history begins — and Bosch is interested in French history, French actions, French hypocrisy — but she does take us to postwar Paris and the desperate search by survivors for someone of their past, and by Jewish children for some knowledge of who they were and where they came from, even their true names.
The drama of reunion is not played up, as it might be in an American film, as a moment of triumph, because we see that, for every reunion, there are thousands who did not return. There is a deep and subtle power to the film; characters are developed and then we return to them, themes are presented and then refined. Each scene is striking; no moment seems superfluous, none inauthentic. But there is no subtlety to what is presented — the horror is layered, the intensity builds from scene to scene. And in the end, we have a powerful film that presents the truth of how the French treated their Jews.
Roselyne Bosch has done her job. It is a film not to be missed.
Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com/a_jew.