Review: The Round Up

France confronts its wartime guilt

By Jonathan Foreman, June 16, 2011
Parisian children being deported

Parisian children being deported

The Round Up has been a huge sensation in France. It is the first feature film to tell the story of the terrible episode in 1942 when the French authorities carried out a mass round-up of Jews in Paris.

On July 16, some 13,000 Jews were dragged out of their beds in dawn raids by the police. Most of the families were taken to the Vélodrome d'hiver, an indoor stadium near the Eiffel Tower. There they were kept in inhuman conditions for five days before being moved to internment camps and on to Auschwitz and other death camps.

The film is a remarkable achievement on several levels. Though fictional in form - and starring such luminaries of French cinema as Jean Reno, Sylvie Testud, and the French-Jewish comedian Gad Elmaleh - its characters are based on real people. The action is derived from eyewitness accounts and interviews with survivors carried out by writer-director Rose Bosch, a (non-Jewish) ex-investigative journalist.

It begins with remarkable black-and-white documentary footage of Hitler's famous tour of Paris, footage that gives way to a scene of boys playing in the streets below Montmartre, yellow stars pinned to their chests. Very quickly you get a sense of the restrictions imposed on France's Jews long before the Nazis decided to include the country in their plans for a Jew-free western Europe.

Though gripping throughout, and every bit as powerful and upsetting as it should be, The Round Up is not especially well written. Some of the early scenes setting up Jewish life in the French capital feel crude, even amateurish. Given her limitations as a creator of believable dialogue, Bosch also takes some unnecessary risks with scenes of Hitler and his circle enjoying a Bavarian retreat.

The film is oddly vague about the distinction between French Jews and "foreign" Jews made by the Vichy regime, even though the majority of Jews deported from France had taken refuge there relatively recently. It also presents those foreign Jews, mostly from eastern Europe, as unrealistically Gallic and secular. In real life their foreignness probably made their round-up and deportation easier.

On the other hand, the film carefully documents the close collaboration of the civil authorities with the Nazis. It also captures one of the stranger aspects of the round-up - the fact that Jewish children were sent east to their deaths against German wishes at the time, because it would be too much of an administrative headache for the French state to deal with thousands of orphans.

As with most feature films concerning the Holocaust, The Round Up offers relief from horror with depictions of heroism and gentile resistance. And the film makes the point that the Paris police and their German overlords found only half of the 25,000 Jews on their lists because Parisians protected the rest.

Those who arranged la rafle were never brought to justice. Indeed, one of its architects, René Bousquet, financed François Mitterand's first presidential bid and was long protected by the Socialist Party. It was only in 1995 after Jacques Chirac came to power that France began officially to admit its government's role in the Holocaust. So it is all the more gratifying to discover that The Round Up has been so popular in France, especially among young people.

Last updated: 11:37am, June 16 2011