erik lundegaard

La Rafle
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La Rafle (2010)

WARNING: SIX MILLION SPOILERS

You know how you have that moment when you can choose not to eat a cookie or pastry, and you hold it in your hand and some part of your brain thinks, “This isn’t a good idea,” but you pop it into your mouth anyway; and even as all that sweetness is coursing through your system, regret sets in, because it’s what you wanted but it’s not what you needed? I’m increasingly feeling like that at the movies.

I felt like that at the end of “La rafle” (“The Round-Up”), Rose Bosch’s film about the Vel’ d’Hiv incident, in which, at the behest of the Nazis, and with the help of French police and civil servants, 13,000 Jews were taken from their homes in Paris in July 1942, placed in the Velodrome d’Hiver for nearly a week, then the internment camps of Drancy, France, before, after further deprivations, being carted off to extermination camps in Poland. One of the film’s final scenes takes place in July 1945. The sympathetic, Protestant nurse, Annette Monod (Melanie Laurent), is working at a center where survivors, some still wearing the striped, soiled uniforms of the camps, look for lost loved ones and generally find death certificates. But Annette runs into Jo Weismann (Hugo Leverdez), the cute, blonde-haired boy who made his escape from the camp and survived the war. He’s with a family up north now, he tells her, and she nods, tears in her eyes. She’s happy to make this connection but we know her heart really goes out for Nono Zygler (Mathieu/Romain Di Concerto), a curly-haired boy, motherless but ignorant of his motherless status back in ’42. Annette had wanted to save him then, but was feverish, and knowledge about the final destination of the Jews, Hitler’s Final Solution, came to her too late, and he’d been carted off with the others. Yet here, at the center, shortly after the moment with Jo, she sees a boy walking through the crowd, holding up, in front of his face, a framed photo of a woman, a mother, who looks like, yes, the mother of Nono! And Annette follows that boy and that photo. Then she squats in front of him and moves the picture aside.

By this point I’d long given up on “La rafle.” I knew it had taken one of the most tragic events of the 20th century and turned it into kitsch. Even so, at this moment, I thought, “Let it be him.”

And it was him! It was little Nono, hardly aged for whatever horrors he’d gone through! And Annette begins to cry from happiness and holds the boy in her arms. And immediately, with all that sweetness coursing through my system, regret set in. The scene was what I wanted but it wasn’t what I, nor the film, needed.

What is it with these recent movies about the horrors of World War II anyway? Why do we need to milk tragedy this way? Why is it not enough that Jewish mothers and children are stuffed into cattle cars bound for Poland? Do we need to intercut to the sympathetic, feverish nurse, biking to the train station on her last legs, on the hope that ... what? What if she got there in time? What could she do? Who would she stop? The French police? The Nazis? History? Yet the intercutting continues in order to heighten the drama. Or melodrama.

“La rafle” begins with video footage that still infuriates: Adolf Hitler, that failed architecture student, touring a conquered Paris in an open car in June 1940. Here he is checking out the Eiffel Tower. Here he is checking out the Arc d’Triomph. On the soundtrack, Edith Piaf sings nostalgically.

The action picks up two years later as Stars of David are introduced to the Jewish population. Jo is ashamed of his but comes out of his shell quickly and runs everywhere with his friends. Fat French merchants make anti-Semitic remarks about how many of them there suddenly are. Schmuel Weismann (Gad Elmaleh), a Polish immigrant, Trotskyite, and Great War veteran, assumes it’ll all blow over. He makes quiet jokes with his kids about how Hitler blames even the sinking of the Titanic on the Jews. “Iceberg,” he says. “Another damn Jew!” It’s a good scene, and that rare pun that works in both languages (since iceberg is the same in both languages).

Even as we’re introduced to these two families, the Weismanns and the Zyglers, we also get snippets of the various authorities who make the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup happen: Parisian politicians, national collaborators such as Marechal Petain (Roland Cope) and Pierre Laval (Jean-Michel Noirey), and, most unnecessarily, the Nazis themselves, Hitler and Himmler, who talk about the deportation matter-of-factly in the mountains of Bavaria. Udo Schenk, generally a voice actor, is approximately the 275th man to play Hitler in the movies and doesn’t acquit himself. His moustache seems too dark or his hair too light or something. He seems off. Also unnecessary. Why include such scenes? To exculpate French gentiles in some way? As if Melanie Laurent doesn’t do that on her own.

But they waste our time, and thus, when the round-up begins, we barely know the Weismanns and the Zyglers beyond, you know, Jo is popular and likes to run; Nono is innocent and cloyingly cute in the way of Chaplin kids. At the velodrome we’re introduced to Dr. David Sheinbaum (Jean Reno), who is singlehandedly trying to administer to all the medical needs of too many people in too small a space. A vague romance, or at least an understanding, is sparked with Nurse Monod. A plumber helps a young girl who... oh, right, there’s another family, isn’t there? The Traubes. They’re most notable for Anna (Adčle Exarchopoulos), who, with the plumber’s help, escapes. Does anything else happen with them? Not much anyway. Nothing became their lives like Anna leaving them.

There are other acts of kindness, both small and large, from the French gentiles; but more often the reduction of the Jews’ status brings out the bullies in petty French functionaries, who eye women, lounge on expensive couches, or drink expensive liquor, because now they can. Except we’ve seen it done better elsewhere.

Is the Holocaust such an incomprehensible moment in history that it’s best understood through documentary (“Nuit et brouillard,” “The Sorrow and the Pity,” “Shoah,” “A Film Unfinished”) or memoir (“Survival in Auschwitz,” “Night,” “Maus,” “The Diary of Ann Frank”)? Through a strict adherence to fact? The events are so horrific that the slightest fictional touch turns the drama into melodrama.

To my mind, only one movie, non-documentary, has done it right: Not “Schindler’s List,” which contains its own brand of melodrama, but Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist.” Polanski, of course, besides being an artist of the first rank, lived, just barely, through the Holocaust, and you can feel it in the film. It’s there in the way bodies fall; it’s there in the sudden matter-of-factness of death; it’s there in the lack of sentimentality.

“La rafle” is sentimental, melodramatic, pretty. It does a disservice.

—April 2, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard