La Rafle

This location, in the above photo, is one of the most beloved places to visit in Paris. This photo is taken from the esplanade of the Jardin du Trocadero,  with the Palais du Chaillot being unseen and behind. This beautiful place overlooks the park, the water basin, and fountains. and provides a superb view looking towards the Eiffel Tower. Most people who come to Paris, arrive here at one point or another. I know I did in 1998, 2003, and more recently. in 2013.

As did these members of the German High Command, and among them was Adolf Hitler. The date of his visit was June 23rd, 1942.

The film La Rafle chooses to begin with archival film footage of Hitler and his staff as they took in some of the best known Paris landmarks, then drove on some of the most famous of thoroughfares in Paris. You are struck by the near complete absence of people, traffic, and everything that makes a city look and feel alive.

No doubt orders were given to keep people off these streets so as to not impair these sightseers.

The French title, La Rafle translates to English as The Roundup. Written and directed by Rose Bosch, this is a 2010 film about the roundup of 13,000 Jews in Paris, within 48 hours in the summer of 1942. Led by Marshal Petain and Pierre Laval, the French Vichy government struck a deal with Hitler in 1940. Germany would occupy northern and western France, including the Atlantic Coast. The Germans would also occupy Paris rather than destroy it. The rest of France would be called Free France.

Roland Cope as Marshal Philippe Petain

However as part of the deal, Petain and Laval agreed to help the Nazis with their ‘Jewish problem’. The Paris authorities agreed to ’roundup’ as many as 25,000 Jews from Paris. That’s Laval in the center in the image below. Jean-Michel Noirey had the role of Laval.

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Most were French nationals, but many were foreigners. On July 16th and 17th, 1942. the roundup began, and as many as 13,000 Jewish people – men, women, and children were forced to leave their homes. This roundup was not conducted by the Germans but by the French themselves These people were transported by buses and trucks to an indoor stadium – the Velodrome d’Hiver – a stadium for indoor bicycle racing.

Conditions were deplorable at best. The people had been limited to one valise each, and could only bring two days worth of food. Issues concerning sanitation, the lack of food and water, privacy, a place to sleep – all grew exponentially within hours.

This film focuses on a specific family and their neighbors. They lived in Montmartre, near Sacre Cœur. They were all French-born, therefore French citizens, and they had no reason to believe they would be deported.

But as far back as 1940, the French authorities were instructed per Petain’s armistices agreement that all of Paris’s people had to register – like a census – they were required to provide such facts as their religions, addresses, countries of origin and so forth. So by the time the round up began, the locations of all of the Jews was already on record. The round up was vastly simplified.

The film stars Jean Reno as a Jewish doctor, one David Sheinbum, a composite character, who agreed to ‘volunteer’ at the Velodrome to treat those who were ill.

Melanie Laurent plays Annette Monod, who was a nursing student as the film began. After her graduation, she was sent to the Velodrome to assist the doctors. Annette Monod was in fact a real person as well as a nurse, and despite being in her 90’s, she met with the film makers during the pre-production time.

This is a film that breaks your heart, and it’s a film that angers you.

You watch and you fret over the fact that we know what will become of these people. These are families with young children. That you meet in the film. These are more than stats about the numbers of holocaust victims.  And the French people. They were not all bad. There were many who abhorred what was going on; many who helped. The film tells us in the end notes that 10,000 Jews were either protected, hidden, or were helped to enable them to flee.

To give you an idea – look at these images from the film. Nurse Annette Monod is arguing with a French officer: Why can’t you let them buy food, there’s a store across the street.

I have orders. I am a soldier. I could be shot.

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Orders to starve children, she asks?

Or later on, at the camp. the adults and the children were separated. Monod protests to the authorities.

While the film spares us from the worst of the horrors that befell these 13,000 Paris Jews. there isn’t a lack of blame. Some ordinary French citizens were not above taunts and vile words that they hurled at the Jews. Marshal Petain and Laval were not portrayed favorably. In reality, following the war Petain was sentenced to death for war crimes. Charles de Gaulle would later commute the sentence to solitary confinement for life.

The actual Petain and Laval

The actual Petain and Laval

Petain would die in 1951 while still incarcerated in solitary confinement on an island prison. Laval’s fate was different. The French government charged him with high treason. He was executed by a firing squad.

This film is not easy for we viewers. While it does not portray or show us the end fates of the victims, it isn’t a film that can be forgotten. In the film Sarah’s Key. the chief topics are about a girl, one of those sent to the Velodrome, who escaped from the camp, and the investigative reporter who worked on the story years later. La Rafle is about the people who did not escape.

By the end of the film, you can’t forget the children.

The children who played spiritedly in the streets of Paris, while all around them were signs that forbid Jews from public places like parks, restaurants, cinemas, and museums.

The children who were taken from their homes with their parents  and then were sent to the camp in box cars. Eventually they would be separated from their parents who were shipped to the East (Poland) . Then days later, these children would be trucked to a rail road station before being shipped East.

In this still from the film, the train that took them to their fate rolls away from us. It is a haunting image. In the main, none of those on this train would ever return. While this image is quite near the end of the film, and is dispiriting to say the least, The film ends on kind of an upbeat note, that seems a bit forced, maybe even imagined rather than factual. I’d have to ask Monod – but I can’t.

This DVD is available via Netflix, or you can buy the DVD from Amazon.

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