True tragedies sensitively portrayed in ‘La Rafle’

When I watched “La Rafle,” I wondered why did it take so long for this wonderful 2010 movie to come to Pasadena? Native English speakers might think the title means raffle, but in actuality, the best translation is “The Round Up.” This movie plays only Saturday and Sunday at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7.

“La Rafle (du Vélodrome d’Hiver)” or “Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv” is how the horrific events of July 16-17, 1942 are commonly referred to in France apparently.  Japan isn’t the only nation having a hard time coming to terms with events of World War II. In 1996, then president Jacques Chirac became the first French leader to admit that France had been at fault. It wasn’t the Germans who, having invaded France, collected the Jewish citizens and refugees. Instead, it was the French police who enforced Opération Vent printanier (“Operation Spring Breeze”).

The result was an intense betrayal of whole families, some who had been kindly warned, but stayed in disbelief that their friends, family and nation would hand them over–men, women and children to the German authorities. The French police gathered up 13,152 Jewish citizens and took them to the Vélodrome, in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, not far from the Eiffel Tower. The Vélodrome had been used during the 1924 Olympics for cycling, weightlifting, wresting and fence.

The round up was made possible because under the German occupation which began in 1940, the Jews were required to register at police stations. The Jews were classified by nationality and profession. You’ll need to know this to make sense of what happens in the movie.

Director/writer Rose Bosch has in her second movie created an incredibly balanced depiction of those times. I usually don’t like recreations in documentaries, but Bosch has given us a fictionalized account based on true events. The movie states in letters that mimic the font of a typewriter that “all the events in this film, no matter how extreme, truly occurred in Summer 1942.”  The result is a sensitive portrayal of a way of life, an innocence that vanished. As the opening credits begin to roll, grainy black and white archival footage showing Hitler in Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the background. These along with the soundtrack set us in the past in Paris.

Hitler did actually visit Paris in June 22, 1940. I didn’t know that, did you? What’s worse are reports that the majority of young people in France today are unaware of the Round up.

After the opening credits, we slowly transition from black and white to color and from archival footage to fictional scenes. The movie begins on June 6 1942 and focuses on life from the perspective of small boy in Paris who must wear his yellow star and stands in front of a carousel that Jews are forbidden to ride. He, Joe Weisman (Hugo Leverdez) must also face the reactions of his former neighbors. “They seemed like such good kids,” an older woman says as she sees the two children, Joe and his friend, with yellow stars. Other people are less judgmental and more protective.

In a room full of nurses, we see black and white images of men who were injured and require prosthetics because their faces can’t be corrected by plastic surgery. One of the supervisors brings two fellow students forward: Esther and Sarah. She notes that they have been told by the Nazis that Jews have pointed ears and hooked noses, but clearly these students do not have those features. When there are problems, you’ll help them escape, the supervisor tells the students. One of these student nurses was Annette Monod (Mélanie Laurent), a Protestant nurse.

Perhaps the weakest part of the movie is when we switch to the life of Hitler (Udo Schenk) and the dealings between the French and German officials. The French are now under the control of the Germans and the Germans have set quotas. First, the French decide to give the foreign Jews. At first it seems this will suffice and that “The Germans won’t take the children.”

Yet eventually they do. They started early. According to historical accounts, from 4 a.m. on 16 July 2042. In the movie, Jo’s family–his father Schmuel (Gad Elmaleh), sisters Charlotte (Charlotte Driesen) and Rachel (Rebecca Marder) and mother Sura (Raphaelle Agogué)–are taken and Jo’s misunderstanding of the situation (and the word embolism) results in the unraveling of his mother’s small lie. Other families lie in an attempt to protect and perhaps save whom they can.

The families are rounded up and taken to the Velodrome. Some of the men had fought in the Great War for France. Some immediately understood what was happening and committed suicide. Others still had hope. Neighbors and the police loot what is left behind.

The Jews are allowed to take only bare essentials and once there, they have little food (two days worth) and are sometimes even prohibited from having water for days. Relief comes when an official uses his rank to trump the authority of the man in charge and his fire fighters provide water and take messages. The fire fighters do so at their own risk. Not all of the civil servants were without mercy and courage.

Having graduated, Annette volunteers to help at the Velodrome, meeting the Jewish Dr. David Sheinbaum (Jean Reno). The doctor is a composite of doctors who were imprisoned and served their fellow Jews. He tells the gutsy Anna Traube (Adéle Exarchopoulos) of a man who can give her papers to escape, but the families attempt to stay together. A whole family can’t easily escape and parents are reluctant to leave their children; husbands, their wives.

In all, 13,152 Jews were taken, but about 10,000 were missing, helped by their friends to escape. The movie then shows the men being separated from their wives and the women from their children. Eventually, the children but go as well, supposedly to rejoin their parents, but their parents have already been murdered.

The movie doesn’t follow the French Jews to the extermination camps. Instead, the last scenes are at the end of the war when Annette searches for survivors at the Hotel Lutetia. There are pictures of the missing.

Jo Weismann survived and at 80, he appears as himself. Annette also survived despite her protests against the round up. Bosch found Jo Weismann and Annette Monod and used their accounts as the basis for this film. Another survivor, Anna Traube, now lives in Nice.

The movie is a history lesson with sensitive portraits of love and betrayal. There are lessons of survival and morality here that should not be ignored. And there are grim questions about racism and religion that remain relevant in France today, where there’s rising incidents of prejudicial actions against Jews, Muslims and perceived immigrants/foreigners. Those questions undoubtedly should be asked outside of France, even in the U.S. today. In French, German and Yiddish with English subtitles and was the winner of the Audience Award at the 2011 Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. For information about other screenings, visit the official website.

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