It may be 66 years since the end of the Second World War, but that black period in history still fascinates and intrigues storytellers, historians and film-makers, as it continues to offering glimpses into man’s humanity and inhumanity. The passing of time has also seen terrible revelations come to light.
One such revelation is the tragic events that unfolded in July 1942 in Paris, in which some 13,000 Jews were rounded by the local police (in what would become known as the Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver) and sent to the infamous Drancy internment camp, before being shipped off to Auschwitz. It was only in 1995 that former French President, Jacques Chirac, apologised for the complicit role of French policemen and civil servants who served in the raid. The inhuman events have now been fictionalised in two films: Sarah’s Key, starring Kristin Scott Thomas (currently playing in cinemas), and The Round-Up, which has just been given a UK DVD release.
Using real-life accounts, The Round-Up follows the Weisman and Traube families as they are arrested and herded into a vast 1930’s-built velodrome (demolished in 1959) situated near the Eiffel Tower. With no water, little food and disease prevalent, conditions worsen as the weeks pass. A Protestant nurse, Annette Monod (Melanie Laurent), volunteers to help, assisting a Jewish doctor (Jean Reno in a smaller role than you imagine), and when the families are transferred to a transit camp, Annette follows.
While waiting to be shipped to work camps in Poland (in reality the death camps), the families and their children, including Jo Weisman and an orphan called Noé, try to make sense of their fate. When the French authorities (under the orders of Marshal Pétain) decide that the children should not be separated from their parents, the Nazis see this as an opportunity to exterminate the children along with their parents. On learning the truth about the work camps, young Jo then hatches a plan to escape…
This is a beautifully crafted movie, with fine performances (especially the youngsters) and follows in the footsteps of some other fine movies dealing with similar issues (like Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien in 1974 and his 1987 semi-autobiographic drama Au revoir les enfants, and 2008’s The Boy With the Striped Pajamas – catch it tonight on BBC2 at 9pm).
One of the most powerful images that stays with you is a scene in which the children describe the burning smell of the camp’s crematoria as sponge cake or waffles. It’s deeply moving. Meanwhile, one of the most disturbing sights is witnessing the French police complying with their German masters and treating their fellow countrymen so cruelly.
A similar situation arises at the very end of Vittorio De Sica’s 1970 masterpiece, The Garden of the Finzi-Contini. Long out of distribution, it has finally been re-mastered and re-released, through Arrow Academy.
As war breaks out, an aristocratic Jewish family (the Finzi-Contini) feels safe behind the walls of their grand estate as Fascism grips the country. Living in a state a denial, Micòl (The Conformist’s Dominique Sanda) and her sickly brother Alberto (Helmut Berger, in his second film) carry on holding tennis games and summer parties with their friends, including Giorgio (who holds a torch for Micòl) and Bruno (a gentile with socialist sympathies). But when the reality of Mussolini’s anti-Semitic restrictions finally hits home, the wealth, privilege and social position of the Finzi-Continis counts for nothing under the new world order. And when they are arrested by Italian soldiers rounding up the city’s Jewish population, the Finzi-Continis must then await their fate (deportation to a concentration camp) in a former classroom.
Drawing on the celebrated work of author Giorgio Bassani, the film won De Sica the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and it certainly deserves reappraisal. With its stirring story, stunning yet ultimately tragic setting, majestic score and chilling final scene, it still retains all its power 40 years after its release.