If there is a moment in history that does not need overwrought drama, sentimentality and heavy-handedness it is the roundup of Jews to Hitler’s death camps during World War II. Since the 2010 release of La Rafle (The Roundup) in France, where it was a bona fide box office hit, there have been many reviews of the film. Many have accused director Rose Bosch of sentimentality. But I feel differently about her movie, as she does seem to show restraint. Based on true accounts of this dark bit of history in Nazi-occupied Paris, though unrated by the MPAA, she tempers the film for a PG-13 level of audience. Some will argue this weakens the impact of the story, making it in fact sentimental. OK, so she does not exploit the violence. This does not make this story any less powerful. Besides, the horror of the Holocaust can never be matched sitting in a cozy movie theater for a couple of hours no matter how “unsentimental” you make it.
The music, though sometimes melodramatic, remains subdued. Especially if you compare it to, say, John Williams, who composed the score for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. There are few grandiose moments in La Rafle and no abuse of slow motion or other such high-pitched, stylized techniques. Though the production value is high, it serves the story, and never feels too showy. The production even includes a digital effect that sweeps through the thousands rounded up in one day contained in the Velodrome d’Hiver, on their first step to the death camps. This is not a fun film to watch, but a testament, if a straight-forward one, with little standout stylistic flourishes, so despite the fact that this film features Mélanie Laurent, who shines in an emotionally charged performance, do not expect Inglorious Basterds.
I’m not saying La Rafle is a perfect film. It actually falls in a sort of middle ground of compromise of violence and sentimentality that will probably be shrugged away by most. But, I, for one, was moved by the film’s little touches of detail. The story is, for the most-part, told from the perspective of Joseph Weismann (Hugo Leverdez), a naive 11-year-old boy who is based on a real, still living person, who barely escaped the trains to Auschwitz to tell the story that informs this movie. The film is at its strongest when it stays with his perspective. However, Bosch tries to cram too much exposition around Weismann’s story to the film’s detriment. It is in the intimate moments with Jo where the simple power of the film resonates.
The film begins with too much expository dialogue running the viewer through a historical context that should be familiar to anyone who might be curious about such a movie. There is even a brief cut to Vichy, France, the famous seat of the collaborators that paved Hitler’s entrance into France. There are also cutaways to Hitler himself (Udo Schenk) who has such obvious lines as “Everything is happening as I wrote in Mein Kampf.” He also tells Himmler (Thomas Darchinger) of making “ashes” of the Jews so no one can tell the children from the adults. There is one brief moment showing a German officer calling from Auschwitz, with flames raging behind him, asking for the deliveries to slow down. In more deft hands, say Oliver Stone or Quentin Tarantino, that moment could have resonated, but it’s muted and oddly matter-of-fact, as Bosch tries to over-reach for comprehension in the drama.
The truth of the horrors of this period in history do not need such painstaking, all-encompassing re-enactment. It’s the small, intimate moments that ultimately hold the film together, like the little Jewish boy Nono (played by identical twin brothers Mathieu Di Concerto and Romain Di Concerto) who tag along with the masses. Through it all he continues to ask when his mother will arrive to join he and his brother, not knowing that she has already died. He clings to a Red Cross nurse named Annette Monod (Laurent) who knows the truth but tries to keep his spirit afloat as her own spirals downward. There are also more personal details like the disposal of jewelry in the latrines just before the detainees are hauled away to their final camp and the arrival of firemen at the Velodrome d’Hiver offering their hoses to the thirsty masses. Those contained at the stadium also do not pass up a chance to hand over notes to the firemen addressed to those on the outside. These are the sort of details a child might remember from a life experience. The historical context was something far beyond and would have naturally come out in the film in more subtle ways.
It is a difficult line to walk for a director who wants to tell a side of the Holocaust that has not really ever been given such a grandiose, big budget treatment. This was a true human tragedy in France. Anyone unmoved by film’s end, during the reunion of those who should have died, is not allowing themselves a chance to understand the horror that Bosch is trying to communicate. She does it best during the small details, like the unrelenting drive of a Jewish doctor (Jean Reno) to help his people stay alive in the unsanitary conditions they were relegated to. Or the small but powerful lines by the victims as they are rounded up. One woman screams, “I won’t leave. This is my house!” as she clings to her home’s door frame while a French policeman yanks on her. When the neighborhood baker’s wife yells out “Good bye, Jewish vermin” as those gathered up are placed on trucks, a little girl yells back, “I’m not vermin!” These moments resonate with immense tragedy, proving there is no need for melodrama or over-explanation. It is these observant touches of humanity that pay off in the end.
La Rafle opens Friday, Feb. 17, in select theaters nationwide, in the US. In South Florida it will play the Intracoastal Mall Cinema in North Miami, Sunrise Eleven in West Broward, Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, Regal Shadowood, Regal Delray and Cobb Jupiter 18. The following Friday, Feb. 24, it will start its run at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale and the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The film is unrated and runs 124 minutes. Up-date: If you missed it at any of the prior venues, it arrives for a limited run at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema as part of Miami Film Month on Friday, Mar. 16. Get tickets to those dates here.