In the early hours of July 17th, 1942, more than 13,000 Jews were taken from their homes in occupied Paris and detained at the Velodrome d’Hiver. They were held there for a few days before being shipped off to a holding site, and finally to the concentration camps, of which only 25 survived. The military force that undertook this disgusting act was not German. No, the men who so enthusiastically enforced the act of cleaning the Jews from Paris were French.
The order came about by way of a meeting between the Gestapo and Rene Bousquet, a ranking official of the puppet Vichy government that so-say ruled France during its occupation. Bousquet and Vichy leader Pierre Laval saw the ethnic sweep to be of two uses: It would curry favor with Hitler, and it would also help repel what was perceived by some to be an invasion of Jews into French society.
In an extended opening, the main characters in The Round-Up (French title: la rafle.) are introduced. The Weismanns and the Zyglers are neighbors, their sons are best friends. They, like the entire Jewish population, are forced to wear yellow stars marking them out as Israelites. Just this identification alone is enough to create a stir; some people in the neighborhood weren’t even aware of their faith but now that they do, they are happy to hurl abuse at the children. We also see the graduation of nurse Annette Monod (Inglourious Basterds‘ Melanie Laurent). We then watch the meeting between the loathsome Bousquet and the Germans, and the round-up is planned in fine detail.
What follows next is nothing short of obscene. The French military are dispatched to bring in the Jews, and do so with extreme enthusiasm. For some of these families it would be the last time they ever saw each other. Writer/director Rose Bosch leaves us in no doubt as to her disgust at the handling of the situation, with officers sweeping from house to house with their precious orders. The innocents — all of them, sick or pregnant, young or old — are taken to the velodrome, to be cared for by Monod and Jewish doctor David Sheinbaum (Jean Reno).
If life was tough in the velodrome, it got a whole lot worse when the detainees were sent to detention camp. Without sufficient rations the innocents became malnourished and sickly, and Monod works as hard as she possibly can to save them. It is not enough. She writes to the authorities, who will not listen, and then consigns herself to eating the same food as she serves. She loses fourteen pounds in three weeks. All the while, the French and German guards look on, and do nothing.
“All the events in this film, even the most extreme, truly occurred in the Summer of 1942,” says the film. If so, those involved should be ashamed of themselves. By the film’s inevitable conclusion I was crying like a baby. The children starve, and Bosch intercuts to pictures of Hitler dining sumptuously with his entourage. Comparisons to Schindler’s List are obvious, and merited.
The fact that Joseph Weismann, young Jo in the movie, lived to see The Round-Up‘s release adds yet more poignancy to an already tear-laden story. Bosch tells us, as if we need reminding, that few returned from the death trains; none of the 4051 children on board survived. President Jacques Chirac finally publicly apologized for his nation’s complicity in this evil affair in 1995. The Round-Up is French cinema’s even more belated act of contrition.