If we accept that Holocaust films have become a genre onto themselves, espousing survival against impossible odds or perhaps bravery in the face of organized genocide, a chance to hold on to a shred of humanity when up against deplorable conditions, then it’s fair game to discuss the cliches many lesser and greater films about the time period trade in. One of the key cliches, a foundation really, is the film taking a moment to establish the vibrant and diverse Jewish communities, frequently caught unawares, expecting mere discrimination while the specter of annihilation creeps up and swings open the doors of stifling cattle cars. It’s a chance for a film to show how people who aren’t so different from their non-Jewish neighbors are reduced to second class citizens, enemies of the state, and finally subhuman vermin, barely fit to work themselves to death. It’s also not particularly compelling to see after the tenth go-round, and that is where Roselyne Bosch‘s “La Rafle” stumbles out of the gate with a pacing that suggests a stern history lesson, despite warm performances from the cast and a polished look.
The basis for “La Rafle” is the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, the arrest of over 13,000 Jewish nationals and recent immigrants (many fleeing the Nazi regime) by French police acting under Nazi orders. The men, women, and children languished in a stadium prior to being deported to the Beaune-La-Rolande and then on to Auschwitz. The most laudable thing Bosch does, albeit with broad strokes and outsized characterizations, is intercut the lives of Parisian Jews (in particular a family of Polish refugees settling in) with the planning that would lead to their extermination.
White men in power meet in lavish settings. “100,000 is too many” says one. “20,000 is too few,” says another. These moments elevate the film despite the essentially mustache-twirling acting of the bad men. Hitler and Himmler make appearances, the former spending most of his time relaxing at a party as Eva Braun galivants and mixes cocktails. It’s one of several asides in a film that never finds dramatic focus, with Bosch juggling several plotlines and suceeding largely in presenting a recreation of a tragedy, plain and simple, hardly plumbing depths.
The family in focus are the Weismanns, with father Schmuel (Gad Elmaleh, wise-cracking but not infallible), mother Sura (Raphaëlle Agogué), sister Rachel (Rebecca Marder), and the baby of the family Jo (Hugo Leverdez), who pinches cigarettes from undernearth Nazi boots with best friend Simon (Oliver Cywie) and Simon’s little brother Nono (twins Mathieu and Romain Di Concerto). The site of the sickly yellow Magen David, the sixpoint star synonymous with the Jews, pinned to the clothing of every future victim is still enough to deliver chills.
As far a straightforward plot goes, we follow Jo and Nono as they fall under the care of Annette Monod (played by Melanie Laurent), a righteous gentile if there ever was one and based on a real Red Cross nurse who protested the deportation. Laurent is more than one up to the task but the role underserves her intentions. Annette is a saint, flawless and impeccable, going on the prisoner’s rations to demonstrate the deplorable conditions in the camp. Whatever flaws were granted this human being, whatever thoughts beyond a singular focus on the right thing, we are not privy to them. She becomes a stand-in for the lone voice speaking out for justice, but little more.
The same goes for Jean Reno’s David, a Jewish doctor laboring with few resources to care for a people lacking in basic nutrition and felled by disease. David at one point floats Zionist themes, presciently saying that the Jews must have a country of their own in order to survive this onslaught. A single line is all we get and that idea remains untouched, just as Jo’s father’s mentions Troskyism in passing, but it’s never attended to. A major disservice is done to Denis Ménochet (who unforgettably played the farmer verbally sparring with the Jew Hunter in the opening scene of Tarantino’s revisionist history fantasy), here relegated to a mindless bad guy, following orders without question. Ménochet, Reno, and Laurent are better than the material they are given but they bring a humanity to their characters that cries out for further development.
“La Rafle” speeds toward the inevitable and then backpedals the tragedy for a bittersweet ending that feels fantastical compared to the realism of everything that came before. It is a moving final scene, but it also feels like a cop-out. That said, the final moments of “La Rafle” display a subtle complexity that much of the film is missing — one of the characters watches American troops flirt with French women, just as the Nazi did several years earlier. “La Rafle” leaves it up to the viewer to determine what’s changed, but it’s too little too late in a film that delivers the drama in proper decorum but aspires to little else. [B-]