When it comes to wartime atrocities committed against civilians, burying that memory shouldn’t be a historical option. Yet so many incidents have slipped through the net — either through deliberate political cover-ups or perhaps through a collective wish to part from the heavy burden of remembered pain.
“The Round Up” is an account of the little-known, little-reported mass round up of Jews in Paris on July 16, 1942. On this day at 4 a.m., more than 13,000 Parisian Jews were “arrested” under orders from the Nazi’s and herded into the Velodrome d’Hiver (the winter cycling stadium) where they were left for five days without food or water, then carted off to camps in Vichy and Berghof to be executed. Journalist turned filmmaker Rose Bosch dug up the evidence of what transpired on that day and turned it into a film that’s less enraged than totally harrowing to witness.
The immediacy of the story and performances give the film a documentary feel — and according to the production notes Melanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds”) who plays a Red Cross nurse, was so affected by the experience of making the film that she lost 8 kg in three weeks and was temporarily incapacitated with a stress-induced rash. Others in the cast reported insomnia, depression and ulcers. Subsequently everyone looks drawn and underweight — reminiscent of photos taken of people under wartime strain. Clearly, Bosch aimed for authenticity and got it — everything about the film speaks of a deep wish to get things right and set the record straight.
For the Jewish community, Paris in 1942 was an on-going bad dream. They lived in fear of the German soldiers goose-stepping on the streets and the terrible rumors that kept coming in from all over Europe. Many were exiles, living in ghettos on little more than nothing. Others were French citizens who had been in the city for generations. Everyone of Jewish heritage was forced to wear yellow stars pinned to their chests, and were segregated from the rest of the populace.
Still, people carried on with their lives and children continued to go to school. This was France, a sovereign nation (though Marshal Petain was soon exposed as a Nazi collaborator and Adolf Hitler’s puppet) or so they believed, and women, children and the elderly were supposedly protected by French law. That myth was crushed out like a cigarette as gendarme and Nazi soldiers — working in groups of four per household — broke down doors and marched everyone off. At the Velodrome d’Hiver three Red Cross doctors were assigned to look after 8,000 people (the rest were taken away to various camps) with no medical supplies, food or water.
The bulk of the film concentrates on the five days following the round up: the mind-boggling reality of thousands of people herded together like cattle and literally left to rot in their own filth. Jean Reno delivers a restrained but excellent performance as Dr. David Sheinbaum, who himself had been arrested and ordered to work as the on-site medic. It’s a sick joke, since he’s allowed to carry only the most rudimentary tools of his trade and without supplies or even water to wash bandages, treating patients meant holding their hands as they die. According to records and in the movie, pregnant women miscarried and expired on the dirty floor. Many chose to kill themselves, or just gave way to insanity. Those hiding food and money were beaten and tortured. And there was no choice but to endure it all and try to survive. The film shows that most of the adults realized things could only get worse and what kept them going wasn’t hope, but a desperate longing to be with their children.
Bosch unearthed one of the children who made it through the ordeal, and later escaped from a concentration camp. In 1942, Joseph Weismann had been 11 years old — an ordinary Parisian boy growing up with his parents and two sisters. Out of his family, he alone saw out the war, matured and raised a family. In “The Round Up” his part is played by the sprightly Hugo Leverdez and Weismann himself makes a cameo appearance. He came to Tokyo to promote the film and said that 70 years after that July day, thoughts of his family and his mother in particular, bring on “a terrible, terrible sadness.” But Joseph Weismann was one of the fortunate few — he managed to slip past the barbed wire and carve out his future. He said that what funded his escape were two 100-franc notes, partially buried in the overflowing muck of the camp latrine. To this day, his hands recall the feeling of retrieving those notes, and hastily pushing them into his pocket. For him, it was a brief but tangible moment of triumph and a slap in the face of evil barbarianism.