American critic Roger Ebert once said: “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.” I understand his meaning but I personally think of cinema as being more like a mirror; it allows us to reflect not only on the present, but also on the past. It allows us to atone and aggrieve, and that is perhaps why so many films have been made about WWII and the heinous crimes executed by soldiers under the orders of Adolf Hitler, history’s most iconic megalomaniac. The most famous of these films is Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993). Stanley Kubrick perfectly summarized my problem with that film when he said: “Schindler’s List was about 200 Jews who lived. The Holocaust is about 6 million Jews who died.” The Holocaust arose from a failure to communicate, empathize and understand. Basically, to be human. The Round Up is a film which does not shy away from this fact, yet remains commendably humanist, offering a glint of hope in the face of unspeakable oppression and evil. Perhaps that’s why it works so well.
The film is based on the true story of 1942’s Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, in which 13,000 Jews were forced from their homes into Paris’ famous cycling stadium, destroyed by a fire in 1959. The roundup was executed by French police working in union with the Nazi’s; swiftly and without conscience. Bosch’s film is admirably faithful to reality, actually focusing on several real victims of the roundup, including Jo Weismann (played here by the excellent Hugo Leverdez), who escaped aged 11 and is sill alive today. We primarily focus on the Weismann and Zygler families, especially their children, and also Dr. David Sheinbaum (Jean Reno) and nurse Annette Monod (Mélanie Laurent). The film also makes sharp juxtapositions between the Nazi’s holding camps and Hitler’s (Udo Schenk) creepily cosy hilltop villa, where he puts plans into motion, at one point stating that all Jewish corpses must be burnt. Ashes, he says, don’t distinguish between men, women and children. By burning the corpses he believes himself able to alleviate any guilt, and deny history the chance to put names to his victims.
I’ll get straight to the point on this one: The Round Up is an excellent film. To say that I loved it would be a misjudged statement, for how can one love a film concerning such a disturbing subject? But it’s a superbly crafted work, emotional and unafraid, and its strength is commanding. Indeed, the correct statement would be to say that I admired this film, more so than Schindler’s List, which feigned optimism in a way I find particularly uncomfortable. And for anyone thinking they’ve seen enough WWII dramas, think again – this is the first time the story of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup has been depicted onscreen, and it’s worth experiencing. The message of the film may be one we’ve heard before but the delivery is fresh, and the warmth and realism of its characters ensure that The Round Up stands out in a crowded market.
I can’t complain about the script, the direction, or the beautiful photography, courtesy of DP David Ungaro, who also did striking work on Jan Kounen’s Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009). But the film really succeeds on the strength of its performances, especially from the young cast. Reno and Laurent are compelling, sure, and Sylvie Testud impresses in her brief screen-time, but I really want to sing the praises of Leverdez, entirely convincing as Jo, who transforms from a naive young man into a wounded soul, exposed to the evils of the world and left without a shoulder to cry on. In the beginning his eyes speak of wonderment and optimism for life – there’s a girl he fancies but is too shy to talk to, and at the camp they occasionally swap glances. As time wears on their expressions become more fearful and eventually empty. The last time he looks at her they barely register a connection; he sees through her now, for all he knows is pain. There’s a noticeable change in the boy, and it’s all down to the talents of Leverdez.
I can’t recommend The Round Up enough. Although it runs at just over two hours there’s not a single scene I’d cut, and not a moment which feels lost or disconnected from the whole. It’s a deeply moving film, ending on the tones of ‘Clair De Lune’ by Claude Debussy. Dramatically clichéd that track may be, but you won’t care. It’s an achingly gorgeous piece; a glimmer of light in the darkness, where only darkness can pervade…
A great transfer. I know it’s a new film but this one looks especially good, as Ungaro is such a wonderful photographer. The greens look so crisp here, and equally the greys and blacks carry a plague-like sadness. He knows how to evoke feeling through colour and light, and this Blu-Ray supports his work beautifully.
There’s a single extra to be found here, a 26-minute Making Of documentary, and it’s enlightening, if routine. The highlight is footage of some of the cast meeting their real-life counterparts, aged and clearly carrying the weight of the memories we’ve just seen depicted onscreen. The doc provides context and some interesting production tidbits, but what comes through clearest is passion. The people involved care about this project and the story they’re telling. That’s why it’s so good.
The Round Up is out on DVD and blu-ray 18th July 2011.
Director: Rose Bosch
Stars: Jean Reno, Mélanie Laurent, Gad Elmaleh
Runtime: 115 min
Country: France, Germany, Hungary