Sometimes it takes a generation or two for popular culture to come to grips with an actual historical event, especially if, says writer/director Rose Bosch, that event is in someway taboo, stirring up feelings of shame and outrage.
Bosch, a former journalist, spent five years researching The Round Up, an episode well-known amongst historians and Holocaust archivists but obscure in the popular imagination and which formed the basis of her latest film called La Rafle (The Round Up) which stars Jean Reno, Gad Elmaleh and Melanie Laurent.
“It became very personal for me like a cause,” she told SBS, interviewed via phone while on location for her next film in Europe. Bosch says that the experience of making the picture was difficult and painful and that's one reason why stories like the roundup take time to come to the screen, “because you have to have the kind of motivation you can only find in real life. I mean by that, that Spielberg was Jewish, which was part of Schindler's List and Polanski, also Jewish, showed the ghetto in The Pianist because he lived the ghetto. As for me, I'm not Jewish but I share my life with Alain Goldman (who produced The Round Up) whose family escaped the roundup in 1942.”
It is a story she says that has been conspicuously over-looked in movies, fiction and magazine articles until President Jacques Chirac offered a national apology in 1995.
Colloquially known as the Velo d'Hiver, the roundup was actually a massive operation ordered by Hitler and intended to purge France of its Jews, but it was administered at the highest levels by French collaborators and carried out on the ground by over 450 gendarmes. 13,000 men women and children were rounded up in 24 hours in Paris in 1942 and herded into the Winter Velodrome and held there for five days. Those that survived the horrendous conditions there were sent onto Auschwitz. Few of these people survived the war. Only 1,000 Jews returned to France after the liberation.
In his speech Chirac said: “…France, the cradle of Enlightenment and human rights, a safe haven for the oppressed, committed an unforgivable sin.”
The Round Up might be described as the cinematic equivalent of a documentary novel. Bosch says: “I wanted all the stories and all the characters to be real life characters.” However, the shape and narrative of the film is her invention, and naturally she had to condense events and characters and finesse some details (like the fact that the two families the film centres on shared the same apartment block when in fact they did not).
Bosch collected the source material (documents, artefacts) and interviewed survivors like Jo Wiseman who was only 10-years-old at the time. Then, she says, “Working like a blacksmith I bashed the material into shape and wrote the screenplay in five weeks.”
Consciously episodic, conventionally filmed and deeply emotional, the movie moves between following the journey of knockabout Jewish lads Jo (Hugo Leverdez) and his pals Simon (Olivier Cywie) and little Noe (Mathieu and Romain di Concetto); a gentile nurse Annette (Laurent) and a Jewish doctor David (Reno), who continually take risks to bring comfort to the incarcerated Jews after the roundup; and the roundup's power brokers including, controversially, Hitler (Udo Schnek), who is seen lounging in his luxurious home, surrounded by partiers, children and well-wishers.
For Bosch, these scenes were more than a filmmaker's play on the ironic possibilities of film and history. “It is not irony for the sake of irony,” she says. “It's a fact.” A fastidious researcher, Bosch felt that the standard image of dour men leaning over maps and documents while they plot the demise of victims – a movie cliché of conspirators – had not only no power but no moral truth. After reading thousands of pages on Hitler she found that many of the decisions that lay at the heart of the Final Solution took place in intimate scenes while Hitler and his leadership enjoyed a holiday.
Bosch is an unapologetically earnest and serious filmmaker (“you'll never get a divorce movie out of me – it's not important enough”) who in conversation is openly disdainful of critics who object to her project on ideological grounds, suggesting it is impossible and morally objectionable to dramatise something as horrific as genocide.
“The Round Up is like Z, it's like The Pianist, it is political,” she argues. Still, like many a filmmaker, she admits to feeling burdened, perhaps overwhelmed by the responsibility that comes with attempting to deal with such an incendiary subject.
“I dealt with these feelings one day at a time and sometimes one hour at a time… to be stubborn in life is a flaw but in cinema it becomes fantastic when you have to do such a subject,” she says, adding that the 20m Euro production, very expensive by French standards, could only be accomplished because key creatives – including Bosch, Goldman and Reno amongst others – contributed their salaries to the budget.
“I think this film is useful in a moral way – if I can make the audience re-think something once they leave the theatre.”
Released in France last year, The Round Up was a big hit. It was one of two features released in 2010 about the events surrounding Vel d'Hiver – the other was Sarah's Key. The latter was heavily critiqued in some quarters for using the Holocaust as a source for a fictional psychological drama. Bosch maintains that the recent high profile feature films led the uninitiated to explore the actual events.
The Round Up is, she says, in a sense a hopeful film; it is in many ways an 'escape story' since its essence derives from the experiences of those who survived. But it is also quietly angry. That's because, Bosch says, it reflects the pain of those who have lived the story, but were ignored for so long. “After the war when De Gaulle came to power, he did not 'cut off the heads' of those who collaborated with the Nazis.” That meant that many of France's cultural and political gatekeepers were the same men and women who had been part of the operation that put the roundup into action. “For De Gaulle that was, morally, a big mistake, and now everyone is saying that, because if you don't punish the guilty, it's the whole nation who feels guilty and they don't know why.”
Bosch says a whole generation had to die off before French popular culture could embrace the story and deal with its implications. For instance, one minor character in the movie, Rene Bousquet (Frederic Moulin), a senior servant in the Vichy government, survived the war and escaped all indictments as a collaborator. “Of course he was one of the men who organised the roundup.” Bousquet was a close pal of French President Mitterand. A controversy was stirred up and then quashed about their relationship in the 1980s. Nazi hunter and Holocaust researcher Serge Klausfeld, Bosch's key consultant on the film, filed a complaint against Bousquet for crimes against humanity in 1989. In 1991, Bousquet was indicted. “Just before he was set to trial, he was shot dead while his guards were off having coffee… no one wanted him to talk. If he had of gone on trial the whole story would been told from the inside in court. Do you see what kind of country we are?”