The good, the bad and the cute.

‘La Rafle’ continues the cinematic trend of feel-good Holocaust films.

Jean Reno311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jean Reno311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
La Rafle (FR), Written and directed by Roselyne Bosch.
Hebrew title: Nikudat Isuf. 115 minutes. In French, Yiddish and German. Check with theaters for subtitle information.
Starting with Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, a new and very unwelcome genre of movies has emerged: Feelgood Holocaust films. While at one time, filmmakers avoided the tragic massacre of the Jews, concerned that no director could depict it without trivializing the event, following Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, screens became safe for the Shoah.
But as mainstream movies explored this tragedy, commercial filmmakers had to find a way to make profitable movies on the subject. The death of 6 million people is a bit of a downer, after all. But once Benigni paved the way, it turned out that audiences were willing to see Holocaust movies, as long as they weren’t too depressing. If credibility and plausibility had to be sacrificed along the way, well, that’s show biz.
The latest of these films is La Rafle, which was the opening movie at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival. It stars Jean Reno, who attended the screening along with several of his costars and the director, Roselyne Bosch. It seems likely that their presence was the deciding factor in getting the film its coveted spot at the festival. It isn’t a dull film, and it’s well acted, well made and, for the most part, well written, but utterly dishonest at its core. It focuses on the 13,000 Parisian Jews who were rounded up one day in the summer of 1942 and later deported to concentration camps. One element that may be relatively new for French audiences is the focus on the complicity of gentile French people, notably the French police, in this event. If it isn’t news to you that by and large the French were, to borrow a phrase, Hitler’s willing executioners, then you won’t find anything to draw you to this film, which uses the fate of adorable children in a particularly infuriating way, as did Life is Beautiful.
The adorable children are neighbors in a Paris apartment building. The film cuts back and forth between their fate and the high commands of the Nazis and the Vichy government, as they plan their deportation. For some reason, filmmakers seem to be looking to top-level Nazi officers for drama, as in the Tom Cruise film Valkyrie, the 2005 German film Downfall and the 2001 television drama, Conspiracy, to name just a few. But watching Nazis decide how to exterminate Jews, while disturbing, actually lacks drama. The second anyone voices a reservation about the plan, we all know he’ll be overruled in no time.
The sections on the Parisian Jews are the more compelling part of the film. Gad Elmaleh is the mild-mannered patriarch of the Weissman family. Like so many others, he and his wife (Raphaelle Agogue) don’t realize how serious the Nazi threat is until too late. Their children, notably their preteen son, Jo (Hugo Leverdez), a particularly handsome and winning kid who looks as if he were adopted from a Swedish orphanage, go about their business as usual, until they are all arrested in a brutal dawn raid and held in the Velodrome d’Hiver, a stadium. Several of their neighbors are arrested as well, while some manage to take refuge with non-Jewish friends. The scenes in the stadium are the dramatic highlight of the film, spotlighting a moment of chaos on the way to the Final Solution. These scenes are ghastly, and the fact that one young woman manages to talk her way out of the stadium does little to mitigate the horror inside.
During the interlude in the stadium, a Jewish doctor played by Jean Reno and a saintly gentile nurse (Melanie Laurent, who played the Jewish heroine of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) become the main characters, as they try to do what they can for the sick inmates. When the stadium is evacuated and its inhabitants sent to a transit camp, they go along.
While the film emphasizes that the majority of the deported Jews were eventually murdered, its ending is utterly false and manipulative. Without giving away details, the film mitigates the tragedy by sparing the cutest characters. A viewer who knew nothing of the true events of World War II would think there was a guardian angel that looked out for sweet young children. If you find that proposition more than a little infuriating, then you’d be wise to skip this film.