The French film La Rafle (The Round Up) was a box office hit and the first film in France to address the summer day in 1942 when some 13,000 Jews were rounded up by French police in collaboration with the Nazis and held in the Vélodrome d’Hiver sports stadium in Paris before being sent to the death camps. Directed by Rose Bosch and starring Jean Reno and Mélanie Laurent, La Rafle helped revive the French conversation about a long-hidden event in France’s past. It opens November 16 in select cities nationwide.
“I was born in the late '60s and it would be mentioned in school,” Bosch says by phone from Paris, “but it was something like: ‘On July 17, 1942, a big roundup of Jews was organized.’ It was not even mentioned who organized it. We knew that the Germans were in Paris in 1942, so we assumed it was the Germans. We had no idea how implicated the French government was.”
In 1995, Jacques Chirac was the first French president to apologize for French complicity in the event, when rounded-up Jews were held a few punishing days before being deported to internment camps in France and finally to Auschwitz. (Some 10,000 more who were targeted by the Nazis were spared thanks to French citizens who helped them escape or hide.)
“When I said I was going to make a film about it everyone in my profession said that we were going to hit a wall, that no one cared, the young generation wouldn’t be interested,” Bosch says. “And it’s exactly the opposite that happened.”
Before she became a screenwriter and director, Bosch was a journalist for 14 years, specializing in long-form human interest features on such hot button topics as international baby smuggling for the French magazine Le Point that often required months of investigation. So when she finally decided to make a film about the roundup, she began an exhaustive three-year research period during which she attempted to learn everything she was never taught in school about the shameful interlude in France’s past. So shameful, in fact, that only one photograph is known to exist from that tragic day.
“I spent three years research doing the work of a journalist, and I guarantee there was no record in terms of images,” Bosch says. “There were testimonies, but no images, except one image of that day at 4 p.m. just after it rained of the outside of the Vélodrome taken from the window of someone who lived across the street.”
So how do you make a film based on a historical event that was largely erased from the historical record?
Bosch amassed 20,000 photos from the period to give herself and her art and costume departments a historical context of the Paris in which the roundup happened, and she says that although she has made a fictional film, that virtually every character and detail is based upon some bit of factual research or testimony. “Any detail you ask me about I can replace it with a real story from a reputable source; I didn’t make anything up,” she says. “Anything suspect I would disregard because I wanted to be as clean a director as I could be from that point of view. Not try to be better than a real-life tragedy.”
Bosch was able to track down Joseph Weismann, one of the only two children who survived that day out of more than 4,000 who were rounded up, in some cases turning one of his one-sentence recollections into whole characters and scenes.
She scoured the archives at the Shoah Memorial in Paris, searching the Internet, tracking down an out-of-print book that was published in the 1950s, a faithful account of the few days before the roundup, plus letters home from nurses and doctors who watched the ordeal unfold.
“All that information was really scattered and it was scarce,” she says, adding: “When people aren’t ready to hear something, no matter what books have been published or what testimonies exist or are available, they don’t care. And I think that is where cinema is so powerful. It gives life back into facts so much so that people can relate to it. We cannot go as deep as a book but sometimes when the audience connects to a film it does a lot more than a book can do.”
And yet it was a line from a letter written by a young girl and thrown out a train window that haunted her for three years during the research period.
“It said, ‘Daddy, we are in the train and very happy you’re not with us. We wanted to say hello but hello forever and thanks for everything,’” she recalls. “That child who is probably 10 knows that she is going to die and she cannot say goodbye or so long; she wants to say it but she doesn’t want to hurt him. For three years I was destroyed by that sentence.”
Bosch admits that her quest to find out everything she could turned obsessional before her husband made her stop researching and start writing the script. “You want to know everything but of course it’s completely illusory, you can’t,” she says.
By the time she finally sat down to write, she had a 600-page synopsis on her computer. “Anything worth telling was in there, it was like the matrix,” she says. She says her journalism training came in handy when she set herself an artificial five-week deadline to produce the screenplay, sending her husband and kids on vacation, locking herself in her study from morning to night.
“I didn’t even need to go back to my notes,” she says of the writing process. “After three years in fact, the more you know about your subject, the quicker you get to the end of the screenplay.”
Since La Rafle came out in Paris in 2010, then on DVD and was broadcast on French television, it has been seen by some 7 million viewers in France, a country of 65 million people. A recent study nevertheless revealed that 42% of the population still has no idea that the roundup happened.
So why does it so often seem to take a movie to make people care about important real-life events?
“I really believe that images are more powerful than words,” Bosch says. “You need to write about facts to understand what happened. But if you want to feel what it was like, you never can get the shock you are going to get with the equivalent image.”