By David Katz
Rose Bosch’s The Round Up (2010) is one of the most notable recent success
stories in French cinema, a moving and thought-provoking account of the Vel d’Iver round up in 1942. The round up was a mass arrest corroborated by the Nazi-occupied French government of 13,000 Parisian Jews, forcibly removed from their homes in Montmarte and ordered to the Vel d’Iver Velodrome, in preparation for their deportment and execution. Building on two years of research and interviews with survivors, the film shines a neglected light on an atrocity the French public would, understandably, very much like to forget. The film has been seen in France by over three million people with many viewers, particularly younger children, learning about it for only the first time. Thecall for national unity in the war’s aftermath meant that French involvement in the Nazi persecution has long been a shameful secret, handing the mantle to artists like Bosch to bring the events to light.
The initial germ of the film was rooted in a desire of Bosch’s to convey to the French public what had rarely seen been on film. “It was such a stain in our history that it remained half-hidden for years,” she tells me; “even when Jacques Chirac, our president in ’95 said ‘we apologise for what France did with the round up’, nevertheless it was just words, and behind that lied such a gigantic continent of events, and they had never been touched by cinema”. Bosch also invokes a sense of personhood, seeing the film as a way of conveying to French viewers that the victims were ordinary people just like them. Yet also, the creation of this piece derives from a more personal fear, of Bosch (whose husband is Jewish though she isn’t herself): the realisation that her children, carrying a Jewish name, would have been rounded up themselves. “I resented that because from the moment I had my kids in 2000, I thought in ’42 they would have knocked at my door saying your husband and your kids have to go. I mean what do I do? It’s crazy. And so I thought I wanted to make a film which places the kids at the centre and gets those Jewish families so close to the viewer that he’s going to see no difference between him and them.’
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is its commitment to a sense of historical authenticity. Of course, whilst the principal characters of Jean Reno’s Jewish doctor and Melanie Laurent’s nurse are real, their dialogue and characterisations are fictionalised; compressed for the purposes of telling the story in an accessible way. As opposed to a documentary with its strategy of talking-head interviews, this puts the film closer to what the filmmaker Werner Herzog calls ‘the ecstatic truth’, capturing in a more universal sense of what these real events are actually saying to us about humanity. Accordingly then, Bosch envelops us without warning into the tactile horror: the paralysing fear of being expelled from your home, the awful conditions and inertia of the Velodrome, and then at the very worst, facing your own mortality shipped away from your children to a Nazi death camp. The pain of the events depicted in this film is a sobering experience for the viewer, an environment where human life itself is made cheap. Bosch relates this to me with great feeling – “They get arrested, their parents didn’t do anything and they suffer and suffer. The children are separated from their parents brutally, and they are taken on a train to be gassed, and that’s the last image they are taking from our world”.
But like the film’s ancestors Schindler’s List (1993) and The Pianist (2002), the film is predominantly about enduring life, rather than death – the humanism and compassion displayed by Reno and Laurent’s characters, and the French ‘Righteous among the nations’ who did all they could to protect Jewish families from persecution. For Bosch, the most viable way to achieve this was by communicating with survivors: “If it had been just dark and depressing, I think people wouldn’t have gone. Among all this death you have a kid who was ten years old and is determined to survive, and his name is Joseph Weismann. So I wanted people to know that those kids in a way survived to tell the story, otherwise no one could have actually told us”. In the manner of Spielberg’s WW2 meditations like Schindler and Empire of the Sun (1987), the story is largely told through the eyes of children, and Bosch refined her direction to evoke this: “I was saying to the steadicam, ‘place yourself at the level of the kid, be like the kid. It makes sense to be at the level of the kid’s eyes, especially when the kids are discovering the train for the first time and the dogs barking. If you don’t film it from the inside out, then people are not going to feel anything.” This approach has been reflected by the film’s enormous success with French children, learning about the round up for the first time and experiencing it alongside the younger protagonists of the story. The film had more admissions in total than both Schindler’s List and The Pianist in France, and many of these younger fans even went to length of contacting Bosch through Facebook, explaining, in their own way, that they had no idea about what had happened in July 1942.
Talking to Bosch is an immersive experience. She is intelligent, humble and above all passionate about her story and providing a window into the filmmaking process. Beginning her working life as an investigative journalist, she later turned to film as a means of exploring a world that is, as she puts it, ‘altogether revolting, fascinating and sublime’. It’s easy to see The Round Up, with its rich visual storytelling, as a piece that embodies her own view of how cinema should work: “I want to write about what is exceptional and what displays or reveals the human soul, or what needs to be done. I don’t like what is just anecdotic – George is in love with Mary but she’s in love with Sebastian. Films have to help us reflect on ourselves.” The Round Up is manages to do exactly that. It reminds us of a little-publicised but also serves as a testament to cinema’s restorative power.