The Movie "La Rafle" confronts wartime stain on French history
When, in 1995, Joseph Weismann reflected on the chances of a film being made about the horrors he witnessed in the thick heat of a Parisian summer more than 50 years earlier, his answer was uttered through tears: "I don't think that anyone would ever dare."
Tomorrow, 15 years after his words were broadcast on television, and almost 70 years on from arguably the most terrible and taboo episode in modern French history, Weismann will be proved wrong. For the first time since 19 July 1942, when about 13,000 French Jews were rounded up by members of their own country's police force and locked inside a velodrome in western Paris, before being taken to concentration camps, a film director has attempted to recreate the terror of the Rafle du Vel d'Hiv.
A harrowing drama following the events of the Nazi-decreed raid through the eyes of a group of young children, La Rafle has been hailed as an important step in France's acknowledgment of its complicity in the crimes of the Occupation.
Its central character is Joseph Weismann, now 80, and one of the 4,051 children taken during the raids. Unlike almost all his compatriots, however, the 11-year-old managed to escape.
The director, Rose Bosch, whose husband's family were Jews in the same Parisian neighbourhood as Weismann, said she felt the film had to be made to shed light on one of the most sensitive chapters in wartime France. "Because it was so taboo and the story was so untold, I decided to do it," she said.
For Bosch, whose cast includes Mélanie Laurent, star of Inglourious Basterds, as a young Protestant nurse, appalled by what she witnesses in the velodrome, and later in a French-run transit camp, the shame lies not just in the scale of the killing and collaboration, but also from France's subsequent failure to confront it.
"[It is] the biggest stain in contemporary history and they have all been trying to scrub it out, all of them," she said, describing a photograph of a French transit camp, which Charles de Gaulle's government doctored to remove the clearly Gallic presence of a gendarme. "That's what [the round-up] represents: a big lie, something that was hidden, that people didn't known what to do about, like a hot potato in their hands."
After years of attempts by successive presidents of the republic to deny any French complicity in activities carried out during a period of foreign occupation, Jacques Chirac broke the silence in 1995, acknowledging the state's role in delivering "those it was protecting to their executioners" during the Rafle.
Writing in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper this week, Chirac said he had seen La Rafle, and that its powerful recreation of the round-up was a reminder that one of the chief principles of society had to be "the courage to declare ... that force should never prevail over law". While not the first film to touch on the round-up, La Rafle is the first to tackle it head-on.
It is not wholly damning of the French, with its focus alternating between eager collaborationists in the Paris police force and horrified members of the public and the authorities that attempted to resist orders.
Historians point out that while the scale was huge, it was barely half of the numbers requested by the Nazis, who wanted 25,000 Jews deported.
Weismann, who was urged by Simone Veil, the leading politician and Auschwitz survivor, to speak of his sufferings after years of silence, is now convinced of the need to pass on the experiences to future generations. "When I speak about it, it suffocates me, chokes me," he said. "It's important to tell this story to the youth of today. It is they who will write the story of tomorrow."
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