In La Rafle, American filmmaker Rose Bosch turns the arrests of 13,000 Jews in Paris in 1942 into a historical thriller. In smoky rooms, pressured by the Nazis, the Vichy officials strive not to lose face rather than prevent injustice, so they insist on hounding the Jews themselves. Once some Jews are reduced to stateless persons, and others conveniently stripped of citizenship, the arrests commence. But first, there’s a shot of Adolf Hitler spouting venom in a radio broadcast; later, he relaxes with Eva Braun and sampling a lush chocolate cake with his little niece, in what feels like a grotesque, as Jewish children suffer deprivation and unspeakable horrors.
The film’s exposition isn’t subtle, but it does have some payoffs: Where a blockbuster like Schindler’s List focused on the exceptional non-Jewish heroism, La Rafle makes a more devastating point, showing the scope of the efficient Franco machinery—though, by German standards, a fiasco—as all too ordinary. Nor can we judge the more principled French, such as officials who insist that no French citizen can be denied his freedom; the Nazis tolerate no objections, and you can reason with them as much as with a hungry wolf. Bosch raises the question of how vulnerable minorities, be they ethnic, national, or religious, are in any society, and shows how passing dislikes slip into hatred: The same storekeeper who calls Jewish children ruffians with roguish roughness in the opening scenes will later cruelly gloat at their tragedy.
While La Rafle weaves too many parallel stories, trying to show that the French were as heroic as they were wicked, citing almost encyclopedic breadth of subterfuge, it does have two stars: the beautiful blond schoolboy, Jo (Hugo Leverdez), who could be a poster for Aryanism, and the seraphic boy nicknamed Nono (twins Mathieu and Romain di Concerto). With Nono’s older brother, they collect change in cafés. Their escapades end as Jews are banned from public spaces, fired from jobs and humiliated, and then finally imprisoned inside the Winter Velodrome, a stadium that lacks drinking water and where basic living conditions are appalling. Its horrors, however, pale quickly as the group is forced into a French interment and later a German concentration camp, parents first, their fate suggested by a moving train and a blazing furnace.
Where La Rafle stalls is in dwelling on the quiet heroism and the coy attraction between young Protestant nurse Annette (Mélanie Laurent) and a Jewish doctor, David Sheinbaum (Jean Reno). Like the Polish Janusz Korczak, David is so dedicated to children that he goes to the camps with them, rather than try to save himself. He is noble but stolid, while pale, nun-like Annette puts on a brave face, petitioning officials: The Germans don’t care to transport 4,000 French children to Auschwitz, but the French authorities, shockingly, want them dispatched to the East, like their parents, treating tragedy as another legalistic conundrum. In the film, Nono and Jo turn up in Paris after the war, but in reality, none of the young Velodrome captives survived Auschwitz. Sentimentality may make the movie’s agony more digestible, but its darkness resists any glossing over of what isn’t only France’s, but Europe’s painful legacy.