The degree to which European nations have acknowledged their complicity in the crimes of the Nazis varies wildly to this day. Allowing for the comparative size of its film industry, you can tell by the degree and number of feature films on the subject that a country produces just how willing it is to deal with guilt for the murder of six million Jews.
France, which boasts one of the most active slates of film production every year, has only begun, over the last couple of decades, to address their role in the Shoah in fiction films. This was, after all, a nation that banned Marcel Ophuls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity” for over a decade, and which really only began to address its homegrown war criminals judicially in the late 1980s.
There have been other French films about the infamous July 16, 1942 round-up (raflé in French) of “foreign” Jews, an event that swept 13,000 into the Vel d’Hiv cycling stadium and, eventually, to their deaths. (Only 25 of the adults and none of the more than 4,000 children imprisoned that day would survive the trip east and the death camps.) In the mid-1970s, when the rétro look enjoyed a brief fashion in French film, there were movies like “Lacombe Lucien,” “Black Thursday” (both 1974) and Joseph Losey’s masterful “M. Klein” (1976). Louis Malle, director of “Lacombe Lucien” would revisit the subject with 1987’s “Au Revoir les Enfants.”
These were films by non-Jewish filmmakers that tended to center their attention on non-Jews, with the actual victims reduced to suffering, huddled masses or naïve, passive individuals. (The honorable exception is the all-but-forgotten 1973 film “Une larme dans l’ocean/A Tear in the Ocean” directed by Henri Glaeser, a frequent Claude Chabrol collaborator, from an autobiographical novel by Manés Sperber; both Glaeser and Sperber were Jews. Its central concern is armed Jewish resistance.
“La Rafle,” the new film by Rose Bosch, a veteran writer-director for French TV and film, shifts that paradigm somewhat. Its narrative is carried, in large part, by Jewish characters, with the notable exception of a nurse, Annette Monod (Mélanie Laurent, who is, ironically, Jewish). And as the film announces at its outset, “All of these events, even the most extreme, actually occurred in the summer of 1942.” The film opens theatrically on Friday, Nov. 16.
Bosch, who also wrote the film, takes on a difficult juggling act, trying to interweave several narrative lines: the dedicated Trotskyist WWI veteran (Gad Elmaleh) trying to support his family in the wake of the Depression; the well-to-do college professor, his wife and children; the pregnant woman (Sylvie Testud) whose husband has managed to escape to the free zone, leaving her to care for two little boys, and so on. Bosch manages to keep track of things, albeit with some awkwardness, an act reminiscent of the recurring image of the merry-go-round that runs through the film like a brightly colored reminder of what normality looks like. The threads come together into a skein when the initial roundup lands all of the characters in the Vel d’Hiv, where we meet Annette and a tough-minded Jewish doctor, David Sheinbaum (Jean Reno appropriately subdued and even pensive). Then the film’s structure reverses itself inventively, as characters are slowly peeled off by transport to death camps in the east or, much more infrequently, by escape.
The film feels at once familiar and yet different from what has become a virtual genre unto itself, the Shoah movie. On the positive side, Bosch resists the rampant temptation in such films to use desaturated color as an easy shorthand for a bad world in which good people suffer. Unfortunately, her characterizations are as schematic as the film’s palette is subtle. There are moments of heroism that ring true: a group of firemen distribute water to the Jews in the velodrome against the wishes of the French police and militiamen; Annette sticks with the Jewish children in her charge until she can no longer transcend her own accumulating illnesses. But the even-handed treatment of the subsidiary characters — here’s a bad Frenchwoman, there’s a good one — feels like a facile piece of moral accountancy.
On the other hand, to the film’s credit, the Jews as a group are not sheep going unquestioningly to the slaughter. Sheinbaum is not merely a compassionate man of medicine. By casting perennial hard man Reno, Bosch gives the character an inner core of great tensile strength so that, even though his resistance is entirely non-violent, there is no doubt that it is resistance. By an accumulation of small subversive acts over the course of the film, “La Rafle” subtly refutes the usual image of French Jews abdicating their right and responsibility to assert their humanity. If the resulting film is a bit sentimental, that is probably inevitable given the profusion of children, but Bosch tries valiantly to keep the level of treacle to a bearable minimum.
“La Rafle,” written and directed by Rose Bosch, opens Friday, Nov. 16 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.). For information, call (212) 255-8800 or go to www.quadcinema.com.