La Rafle

Issue 1

The film La Rafle opened in Paris in March 2010 to great fanfare and public debate.  As the title indicates, the subject is the round-up of Jews by French police on 16 July 1942, their incarceration at the Vel’ d’hiv, and subsequent deportation to the death camps.  The film raises the issue, still troubling to the French, of the Vichy Regime’s participation in the Holocaust.  Note that the same events are addressed in Sarah’s Key, based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s bestseller (2007), which opened in October 2010. Both films are highly accessible, intended for broad audiences, and in their own way, resolutely didactic. They are expected to open in North America and to become available on DVD, allowing for ready use in courses.

La Rafle

Julian Jackson
Queen Mary, University of London

The film La Rafle opened in Paris on 10 March 2010. It tells the story of the infamous round-up of almost 13,000 Jews (4051 of them children under sixteen) in the French capital on 16-17 July 1942.  The date has gone down in history as the rafle du vél d’hiv because 8160 of the victims (including many families with children) were incarcerated in atrocious condition for four days in the Vélodrome d’Hiver sports stadium (known as “Vel’ d’hiv”) in the 15th arrondissement before being transported to other destinations and then finally to Auschwitz.

The film’s release was accompanied by a fanfare of publicity and presented as an important moment in France’s confrontation with the Vichy past– an essential document in France’s painful devoir de mémoire. Previews of the film were shown in 27 cinemas throughout the country to teachers of history and an accompanying pedagogical dossier was sent to 11,000 schools. The launch of the film was also accompanied by a 3 hour debate on France’s main public television channel France 2 with the participation of those who had made and acted in the film as well as witnesses from the period and historians (including Serge Klarsfeld, Max Gallo, Renée Poznanski). It was a great popular success, seen by 2.5 million spectators in a month.

The film was produced by Ilan Goldman, himself the grandson of Polish Jewish immigrants to France in the 1920s, and directed by his wife Rose Bosch, a former journalist and film screenwriter. Goldman has been responsible for a number of box office successes in France (including La Môme, the biopic about the life of Edith Piaf) and this film has all the hallmarks of the commercially successful and popular genre of historical reconstruction: a handful of bankable stars (Jean Reno, Sylvie Testud), a big budget (20 million Euros), a strong story line, and an attention to period detail to provide a satisfyingly rétro atmosphere. In fact such striving after period exactitude can create a paradoxical effect of phoniness. In such films also the child heroes are usually angelic-looking (like the pretty blond boy in La Rafle who plays one of the central characters, Joseph Weismann) and there is usually a resort to sentimental cliché (as in the final scene where one of the small boys loses his teddy bear just as he is herded onto the train that will take him to his death). All this gives the film something of the feel of a well-meaning French téléfilm. But worthy sentiments are not in themselves a guarantee of artistic quality, and it has hard to disagree with the critic Michel Ciment (writing in Positif) when he describes La Rafle as “surtout une mauvaise leçon de cinéma.”

Having said all that, apart from some grotesquely kitsch and clichéd scenes of Hitler at Berchtesgaden listening to Das Rheingold while Eva Braun dances to jazz or of Hitler patting little children on the head (as in France at the same moment his policies send innocent Jewish children to their deaths), I cannot deny that I found parts of the film affecting, perhaps on the Noel Coward principle that “there is nothing more potent than cheap music.” Our purpose here, however, is not to discuss the film as an aesthetic product but to examine its historical accuracy and explore the historical interpretations that underpin it: to view it as a source for understanding how the French today view their Occupation history.

The film opens with some archival footage of Hitler visiting a deserted Paris and then a message appears on the screen telling us that “all the people in this film have existed.” It is indeed the case that the producers have done their homework, knitting together a narrative in which almost every incident is based on a verifiable historical source. The main narrative thrust of the film is provided by the story of the Weismann family- the father a tailor of Polish origin, his wife who is still more at ease in Yiddish than French, and their two daughters, and son Joseph. All members of the family were arrested and taken to the Vel’ d’hiv. Then they were transported to the internment camp of Beaune-la-Rolande in the Loiret. After his parents were deported from the camp, having been forcibly separated from their children, the eleven-year-old Joseph managed to escape with one other boy through the thick barbed wire around the perimeter. They were the only two children to have escaped from the camp. His two sisters both perished in Auschwitz along with his parents. Joseph Weismann testified eloquently and movingly about his own experiences on French television when La Rafle came out– as he has done previously on other occasions – and indeed he even appeared in the film himself as an extra along with his own grandchild. His is the central story told in the film, and the last scene shows him in Paris in 1945 waiting to see if his parents are going to come back. Another true story told in the film is that of Anna Traube, twenty years old when the she was arrested, who succeeded in escaping from the Vel’ d’hiv. Like Weismann she too participated in the debate devoted to La Rafle on France 2.

Although the film is centred on the Jewish children, there are also several scenes showing Laval, Pétain, the Vichy police-chief René Bousquet, and their German counterparts. Thus the film shows not only the horror of the round-up from the perspective of the victims, but also the administrative and political negotiations that made it possible. (There is also one rather odd and short scene which seems to come from the crematoria of Auschwitz where a German is shouting down the telephone that he does not have the capacity to take more Jews for the moment. The purpose of this scene is a little unclear but it may be there to provide an explanation for the otherwise slightly obscure historical question why the Germans delayed the deportation of the children under sixteen).

So almost all the facts of the film are true and the scenes of high politics offer a historically accurate account of what happened. Although Vichy had not itself initiated the policy of arrests, deportations and extermination, it agreed that the French administration co-operate as a means of wresting back some control over policing from the Germans. For this purpose Vichy also made available the famous fichier juif, established in October 1940, which provided the names and addresses of all the Jews to be arrested. There is a scene in the film where the files of the fichier are being sent out to the police. In the film Bousquet is portrayed (convincingly) as a ruthless and heartless bureaucrat interested only in fulfilling the full quota of arrests. Laval is portrayed (equally convincingly) as a cold and cynical operator to whom the fate of 4000 children is a matter of complete indifference. When he gets a German agreement that the children will finally be deported, he tells his ministers that he has done this  “out of humanitarian concern.” When Pétain seems a little worried about a protest against the arrests from Cardinal Suhard of Paris, Laval’s answer is that since the protest has not been made public, it is of no importance. As for Pétain, he comes out as no less coldly pitiless than Laval– something which seems confirmed by a recently revealed  document (whose authenticity has yet to be proven) showing Pétain’s handwritten annotations toughening the provisions of Vichy’s first major piece of anti-Semitic legislation.

In its depiction of the causes of the Vel’ d’hiv round-up the film correctly and effectively demonstrates the complicity of the Vichy regime and its administrative and police apparatus. In this makers of the film benefit from, and popularise, the work of historians like Michael Marrus, Robert Paxton, and Serge Klarsfeld. Thanks to this work, the persecution of the Jews and Vichy’s complicity in the Holocaust have come to loom ever larger in the French national memory. One vitally important moment in this process was Jacques Chirac’s famous speech of 1995 when for the first time a French President accepted the responsibility of France in this terrible event. 16 July– the day of the rafle– is now a national day of memory in France.  If any French person was asked today what first comes to mind when the Vel’ d’hiv is mentioned, they would almost certainly reply the deportation of the Jews. It was not always thus. The Vel’ d’hiv was demolished in 1959, and when shortly afterwards the French documentary filmmaker Frédéric Rossif made a short documentary about its history, he did not mention the rafle.  In the French popular imagination the Vel’ d’hiv was at that time much more famous for the boxing exploits of Marcel Cerdan than the events of July 1942 (Cerdan had indeed fought a bout there in April 1942). The first serious study of the Vél d’hiv roundup appeared in 1967 (by Claude Levy) but astonishingly almost no visual traces of the terrible events remain since the French authorities had of course given no publicity to the arrests. For many years the only visual trace was a photograph alleged to show Jews interned in the stadium- until Serge Klarsfeld established that in fact this was a photograph of collaborators who had been interned there after the Liberation. The single photograph that exists of the events of 16 July 1942 is of a row of municipal buses parked outside the stadium– the buses that had taken the arrested Jews to the stadium.

The events of 16 July first entered the cinema in the film Les Guichets du Louvre (1974) based on a book which describes the efforts of a non-Jewish student to save a Jewish girl who has been arrested. Two years later there was a partial reconstruction of the Vél d’Hiv in Joseph Losey’s Kafkaesque film Mr Klein (but the event is situated in the winter). So La Rafle is the first French film ever to depict in such detail the events of the rafle du Vel’ d’hiv and to reproduce so fully the horror of what occurred inside the stadium. (It has been followed a few months later by the film Elle s’appelait Sarah [Sarah’s Key] which opened in Paris on 13 October).[1] Since the stadium no longer exists, a historical reconstruction was built for the film in Hungary where much of the film was shot. This– along with the scenes of the Jewish families being arrested in the early hours of the morning– is certainly one of the most successful achievements of the film. No film can adequately convey what is must have been when some 8000 people were parked in the stadium for four days in the most appalling sanitary conditions, with almost no food or water, lights continuously on, loudspeakers blaring, children shouting and screaming, babies crying but Weismann (who should know) has said that the reconstruction was so convincing that the moment he entered the fictionally recreated stadium what immediately came back to him was the smell– of excrement, urine and disease. Certainly it is in seeing these scenes in the film that I have for the first time acquired some visual images of what the Vel’ d’hiv must have been like in these days.

Much less successful, as historical recreations, are the parts of the film treating the period before and after those occurring in the Vélodrome. The film opens with scenes of the life of the Jewish community in Montmartre on the eve of the arrests, just after the Germans had imposed the wearing of the star on 7 June. Here the film depicts a most implausibly idyllic world of merry Jewish artisans, women sitting in the streets knitting, children playing without any sense of the impending catastrophe. These scenes of a kind of timeless Amélie Poulainesque disneyfied Montmartre feel completely inauthentic– even if the point is presumably to contrast the innocence of before with the horror of after. But in fact the Jewish community of Paris had been living under the shadow of increasing repression over the past two years, and there had already been three round-ups before the infamous one of July 1942. And surely no bakery in the occupied Paris can ever have been as laden with goodies– and bereft of queues– as the one we see in this film. In short, these scenes feel phoney in every respect.

As for the depiction of the camp of Beaune la Rolande which follow those in the Vél d’hiv, there is one glaring and odd historical error: in the film the camp seems to be situated in the middle of the countryside whereas in fact it was in very close proximity to the local village– such that those in the camp could hear the bells of the local church and the villagers were well aware of the Jews almost in their midst. Apart from the historical inaccuracy setting Beaune la Rolande away from the French population, this decision also has more serious implications which take us to the heart of the interpretation that the film offers of the relationship between French society and the Jews.

What is most noticeable about this film, as has been pointed out forcibly in a number of articles by the French historian Annette Wieviorka, is that while offering us an implacable and convincing account of the role of the French Vichy state, it offers a very benign view of the French population. Apart from an anti-semitic boulangère (the one who seems to have so much bread to sell) who mocks and laughs as the Jews are rounded up, all the other ordinary French are depicted as doing their bit to help the Jews when they can. The most exceptional of these is obviously the Protestant nurse, Annette Monod, who is one of the few medical personnel allowed into the Vél d’hiv. Shocked by what she has seen, she accompanies the Jews until the moment they are placed onto the trains that take them to Auschwitz. A woman of immense moral courage, she is based on a real life person who has been designated one of the French justes. But the film also depicts a whole range of less important characters who display small but important acts of solidarity towards the Jews: a secretary in the offices of the police who telephones to warn that the rafle is planned; a concierge who tries to warn the Jews in her building about what is happening; a priest who harbours two French girls; nuns who bring food to the Jews in the camps; the firemen who take pity on the hungry and thirsty inmates of the stadium and, disobeying their orders, turn on their hoses to provide desperately needed water. There are even two warm-hearted prostitutes who save a Jewish girl. As for the police, they are mostly portrayed doing their duty– with varying degrees of zeal and, in some cases, acts of solidarity towards the Jews. There is one scene in Beaune-la-Rolande where a policeman acts with a degree of sadistic violence but otherwise all the acts of brutality and violence in the film are performed by the uniformed collaborationists, forerunners of the Milice which was founded in 1943.

Overall, then, the film portrays the reactions of French society in a broadly sympathetic light. At the end, a message comes up on the screen telling us: “Vichy and the Germans hoped to round up 24,000 people but on the morning of the rafle courageous Parisians contributed to hiding 10,000 Jews.” This is in some sense the real message of the film. Of course none of this is necessarily wrong. All the small acts of kindness and solidarity can be historically verified, and there were many thousands of others. But they do not tell the whole story. There were also thousands of acts of moral shabbiness, indifference, cowardice and complicity which the film does not show us. For example, Weismann has told in one interview how after he escaped from Beaune la Rolande, he and the boy with whom he had escaped wandered around the countryside for two days unsuccessfully looking for someone to shelter them. A woman did eventually take them in but only to denounce them immediately to the police. It was the policeman called to take them away who saved their lives. There is an atrocious scene in the film showing the mothers in the Beaune camp being stripped of all their possessions in front of their children. Those who try to conceal anything are savagely beaten; earrings are brutally torn off. In the film the perpetrators of this violence are the uniformed collaborationists but in fact we do have some testimonies describing how some local women from the village participated in this exercise. The film shows a brave concierge but Maurice Rajsfus, a survivor of the rafle turned historian, has also described how the concierge of his building went to rifle the possession of the Jews who had been arrested. When the Jews from the Vél d’hiv arrived at the camp of Beaune-la-Rolande the Prefect reported to his superiors that: “it is most of the time with indifference that the inhabitants have watched the convoys of internees arriving.”

Of course historians have also shown us that the arrests of the summer of 1942 in the unoccupied zone caused outrage amongst the French population, and represented a turning point in its perception of what was happening to the Jews. In other words, there is no simple reaction of the French population to these events. For this reason, there is no historical consensus on this question. For example, Marrus and Paxton have tended to downplay the importance of the solidarity shown to the Jews by the non-Jewish population and explain the survival of Jews by the vagaries of German policy. Serge Klarsfeld, whose exposé of the complicity of Vichy is no less pitiless and indeed more detailed than that of Paxton and Marrus, does however ascribe enormous importance to the solidarity of the French people. It is perhaps no coincidence that he was the historical adviser to the film. In the France 2 debate Klarsfeld was at pains to emphasise the lack of zeal of the police – pointing out the rafle had netted about 10,000 fewer victims than had been planned – while Maurice Rajsfus argued the contrary in the same debate. The historian Renée Poznanski has written two very important books on the experience and responses to the Jews in Occupied France, one in 1997 and one in 2008, and the emphasis of the second one is much more negative regarding the non-Jewish French population than the first. In short, it is very difficult to get the balance right. It partly depends what question one is trying to answer: is the most important question why as many as 75,700 Jews were deported from France or is it why “only” 24 per cent of the Jews in France perished (a percentage lower than any other country except Italy, Denmark and Bulgaria).

In short, there is no simple story to tell about the experience of Jews in France in this period – but it is a very simple and indeed almost uplifting story that this film serves up to us. It paints a very partial picture – almost one might say a sort of updated version of the old Resistance myth in which the mass of the French people behaved in an exemplary manner during the Occupation and the traitors and salauds were only a tiny minority. If the film was such a commercial success, it may be partly that it provides, as Wieviorka and others have suggested, a version of France’s past that is all too reassuring to the French of today.

Roselyne Bosch, Director, La Rafle [The Round Up] (2009) France/Color, Légende Films, Gaumont, Running Time: 115 min.

Film and Fiction for French Historians:  A Cultural Bulletin, Issue 1 (December 2010)

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