Two film dramas tackle France’s roundup of Jews in 1942

A scene from La Rafle (The Round Up)

by Cate Marquis Special to the Jewish Light

Two different film dramas, “Sarah’s Key” and “La Rafle” (“The Roundup”), debuting in St. Louis this week, focus on the same historic event, the 1942 La Rafle du Velodrome d’Hiv, the French police roundup of Jewish families in Paris.

Also known as the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, this is a little-known piece of French war history took place July 16-17, 1942 when over 13,000 Jews living in Paris were arrested. It is named for the Velodrome d’Hiv, or Winter Velodrome, an indoor bicycle track and stadium, where the families rounded up were taken and housed for days in squalid conditions. After being held in the Velodrome d’Hiv, families were sent to Drancy internment camp in France and then deported to Auschwitz.  

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Among the most shocking facts of the roundup is that it was carried out by the French, not the Germans, albeit at Nazi direction. While many French people were outraged by their government’s quick surrender to the Nazis and were horrified by their anti-Semitic policies, some French actually embraced them. However, to avoid further outraging the French populace, French Vichy government focused on non-French Jewish refugees living in Paris for the roundup.  

These are among the facts highlighted in “La Rafle.” Both films, “Sarah’s Key” and “La Rafle,” are French dramas but they are far different pieces of cinema. “Sarah’s Key” is an excellent adaptation of the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, a more personal, dramatic story rather than a complete history of that event. The meticulously researched “La Rafle” is packed with historical information, although its devotion to historical accuracy and completeness sometimes weighs down its dramatic arc. To better understand this piece of history, it is best to see both films. 

“Sarah’s Key” opens Friday at Plaza Frontenac Cinema and will play there for at least one week. “La Rafle” is being shown once on Thursday, August 4 at 7 p.m. at Plaza Frontenac as a bonus from the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival. One could easily take them in as a double feature on that night.

The beautifully shot, deeply-moving “Sarah’s Key” is a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel. In the film, American journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristen Scott Thomas) is researching for a magazine article on the Velodrome d’Hiv roundup. Meanwhile, Julia and her French husband (Frederic Pierrot) are moving into a Paris apartment that has been in her husband’s family for years. During her research, Julia discovers a startling connection with one victim, a girl named Sarah. 

When the French police come to arrest her family, 10-year-old Sarah (Melusine Mayance) tells her younger brother to hide in the closet, promising to return and let him out. Instead of being released, they are taken to the Velodrome d’Hiv, which is packed with other Jewish families. 

Sarah’s story is used to outline events of the round-up. The appalling conditions in the Velodrome may recall images of New Orleans’ Superdome after Hurricane Katrina for many viewers.    

Like the novel, the film alternates between present and past. Switching back and forth seems awkward at first but as the story begins to grip the viewer that sense dissipates. Like the book, we follow Sarah’s story to adulthood and its links to the present. 

The tale is told with emotional restraint, avoiding sentimentality and letting events speak for themselves. It is unflinching but touching, with surprising moments of great visual beauty. Family secrets are a running theme, as are moral gray areas, chance and unexpected outcomes. 

The cast is splendid, particularly Kristen Scott Thomas, who serves as the voice of conscience, relentless in her pursuit of truth. Melusine Mayance is engaging as young Sarah, a child whose charm touches everyone. 

Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who co-wrote the screenplay, was drawn to this novel in part by the fact that his grandfather, a Jewish German living in France, was also rounded up.  

The other film, “La Rafle” (“The Round Up”), was extensively researched by director/writer Roselyn Bosch. This well-acted, well-made film more fully explores the historical events of the Velodrome d’Hiv roundup, although it also uses personal stories to dramatize events. 

As noted in its opening credits, everything in the film is true. These are real people’s stories we are seeing. 

Melanie Laurent plays a Christian nurse assisting the lone Jewish doctor (Jean Reno) helping the families in the Vel’ d’Hiv, who are struggling with summer heat, no food or water, and failing sanitation. 

The story begins before the roundup, focused on children and their families. The film illustrates both the complicity of French officials and the fact that many French people tried to help their Jewish neighbors.  

The Velodrome d’Hiv roundup is a too-little-known historical event. These two worthy, complementary films are a good place to start learning about it.