1942. Joseph (Joseph Weismann) is eleven. And this June morning, he must go to school, a yellow star sown on his chest. Jo, his Jewish friends, and their families, learn of life in an occupied Paris, on the Butte Montmartre, where they've taken shelter. At least that's what they think, until that morning on July 16th 1942, when their fragile happiness is toppled over. From the Vélodrome D'Hiver, where 13,000 Jews are crammed, to the camp of Beaune-La-Rolande, from Vichy to the terrace of the Berghof, The Round Up follows the real destinies of the victims and the executioners.
Arguably the most shameful episode in France’s inglorious history during World War II, the infamous Vel d’Hiv Round Up deserves a more skilful, sensitive treatment than writer-director Rose Bosch’s heavy-handed, tear-stained melodrama.
There are plenty of poignant moments in the saga of how 13,000 Jewish men, women and children in Paris were seized by French police in July 1942 and ultimately sent to the Auschwitz gas chambers. But Bosch ladles on the pathos, typified by star Mélanie Laurent’s buckets of tears, and she often resorts to histrionics and cliches when the film would have benefited from a more restrained, dispassionate narrative.
The Round Up/ La Rafle focuses primarily on two families, the Weismanns and the Zyglers, who are neighbours in working-class Montmartre. The children are forced to wear a Jewish star, an ominous sign of the persecution that follows. Schmuel Weismann (Gad Elmaleh), a veteran of the First World War, dismisses suggestions the family should flee even after Jews are placed under a curfew and forbidden to enter public places.
Their 11-year-old son Jo (Hugo Leverdez) is best friends with the Zygler boys, 5-year-old Nono (twins Mathieu and Romain Di Concetto) and Simon (Oliver Cywie).
After officials of the puppet Vichy government cravenly agree to Hitler’s demands to carry out an ethnic cleansing, 13,000 Jews including 4,000 children are rounded up by French police; in one shocking scene, a woman jumps to her death from a roof, clutching her child. As the Jews are herded away, a local woman, an obese baker, hisses, 'Good riddance." They’re held captive in the cavernous Vélodrome d’Hiver where they receive little food and water and disease spreads.
Jean Reno plays Jewish Dr. David Sheinbaum, the sole doctor who tends to the sick and dying in the velodrome and later accompanies them to an internment camp in Beaune-la-Rolande 100 km from Paris.
Laurent shines as Annette Monod, a protestant nurse who works tirelessly with Sheinbaum. Initially naïve and innocent, she’s appalled by what she witnesses in the velodrome and risks her life by helping one girl to escape.
However, the drama in the velodrome and the detention camp is undermined by occasional cut-aways to Hitler and his henchmen at his Eagle's Nest retreat in Berchtesgaden, Germany. Udo Schenk gives a terrible caricature as the Führer, spouting clunky lines such as 'Everything is taking place as I described in Mein Kampf," and there’s a pointless sequence involving his mistress Eva Braun. Another stock villain is Jean-Michel Noirey as the Vichy Prime Minister Pierre Laval.
The scenes in the camp are harrowing despite the fact that the inmates look too well-fed, compared with, say, the haunted, emaciated figures in Life is Beautiful.
The performances from the youngsters are fine although the Di Concetto twins aren’t required to do much more than look adorable, then forlorn.
That old trouper Reno is as solid as you’d expect as a calm and caring man who bravely accepts his fate although his character is fairly one dimensional. Laurent is terrific as the heroine but her flood of tears is symptomatic of a writer/director who’s prone to wallow in sentimentality.
Bosch has said the Vel d'Hiv Round Up was a taboo subject in France, a debatable claim as it was depicted in Michel Mitrani’s 1974 film Les Guichets du Louvre (Black Thursday).