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Jews, Swedes, and the Shoah, and other films

Stanley Kauffmann on Films

La Rafle
Simon & the Oaks

HITLER’S FACE appears. The screen changes. To make that face the very first image of a film is to wipe away millions of possibilities, is to affirm the ice-shock of evil. We watch these clips from the swift visit that he made to Paris in June of 1942, and bound though we already are, we wonder what this film can tell us of his hell that we don’t already know.

Then comes the amazement—in a French film called La Rafle (The Round Up). There is very little here that a moderately well-informed person does not know, yet it is completely engrossing. As soon as Hitler has had his look around, we see one of his men addressing a yellow-starred youth, and this is the springboard from which the director makes her film leap forward to a period of history—to become breathtakingly a film about Nazi officials, French police, several Jewish families. We are told at the start that everything we will see actually took place in that June. The center—or rather a chief center—of that action is the Vel’ d’Hiv, a sports stadium that became a crude camp. The film stakes out its territories so dexterously, with a commitment to the truth of every moment, that—once again for many of us—we can hardly believe that these things really happened, and we are at the same time, once again, terribly convinced.

This is the second film by the writer-director Rose Bosch, and we very soon sense her surety, her confidence in her ingenuity, which gives virtually every shot the feeling that it has been made the best way possible. Within moments we are living in a Paris where yellow-starred children are still playing blithely. It is also the Paris in which we see Laval and Pétain and other French officials—played by actors—making other plans for those children. Chiefly those plans begin with the French police, who are helpful indeed in rounding up thousands of Jewish families on short notice, and herding them into the Vel’ d’Hiv—thousands filling the stands while a very few nurses and doctors try to care for them, especially the children. This temporary shelter is soon seen to be impossible, and the French move a considerable number to internment camps south of Paris. The Germans want them as laborers; the French just want to be rid of their Jews, even those French-born; and many of the prisoners are shipped to Poland. The children, not useful, are retained. At last the powers must get rid of the children, too, and they rush eagerly to trains that they think will take them to their parents but that we know will take them to their deaths.

I have not said anything about the respectful understanding between a Jewish doctor (played by Jean Reno) and a Gentile nurse (Mélanie Laurent) or the family travails in at least two families or other fine details because, although every moment is flawless, it is the whole composition, the summary of released hate and greed, that is the point of Bosch’s extraordinary achievement. The whole cast, including the children, fulfill Bosch’s powerful rendition of a giant horror.

On the seventieth anniversary of the events, President François Hollande of France spoke feelingly about “the crime committed in France, by France.” He said, “We cannot tolerate the fact that two out of three young French people do not know what the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup was.” Recommended: La Rafle.

LISA OHLIN cannot say before her film that everything we will see actually took place, even though her basic subject is as serious as Bosch’s—the treatment of Swedish Jews during Germany’s presence there in World War II. Ohlin’s script was based on a novel (by Marianne Fredriksson). This is not a warning of falsehood but of genre. The very phrase “historical novel” has a spot of tension in it; fact and imagination will both be used. The question is how one truly serves the other.

For this film, Simon & the Oaks, the answer is clear: imagination does better. Still, the story is so deeply rooted in history and Ohlin’s regard for it so keen that we accept the genre, so to speak, and take the film as one way of treating the subject.

In 1939 Simon is about twelve, the son of a working-class family living outside Gothenburg. He worries his energetic father because he is so much of a dreamer, not greatly interested in the usual boyish things. One of Simon’s interests is going to a grove of oak trees—magnificent—and dreaming. At last his thoughtful bent persuades his father to send him to a good school in the city. There he is quickly jarred by the world. In the school are some Jewish boys, already refugees from Germany, who are jeered at by Swedish boys.

Nonetheless Simon makes friends with Isak, the son of a wealthy Jewish bookseller, whose shop becomes heaven to him.

The start of the war increases the worries of Simon’s parents, which puzzles us because they are not Jewish. But the family includes Aunt Inga, a spinster, who is actually Simon’s mother. She once had an affair with a German-Jewish violinist who was passing through, and Simon was the result. By Nazi standards he is a Jew. His family has never told him. There is one letter, in German, from the violinist to Inga, that would label the boy. The parents would like the letter destroyed. But, for various reasons, this is not done.

It is with this coil of plotting that the film tests us. A passing violinist? A single evidential letter? But Ohlin has done so well up to now, with sound actors and her own intensity, that we accept the plot and want to see what happens next. Much comes—some of it asking our acceptance, all of it well done and developing more of the Jewish subject. The bookseller manages to survive the German presence, and he and Simon’s father go into a prospering business together. Simon grows and deepens and eventually learns of his origin. He moves toward scholarship in history and love of music.

That letter eventually leads him and others to Berlin, where they meet the surviving brother of the violinist, who had actually known of the boy and had left him his violin. This delights the increasingly musical Simon. Even more romantic developments evolve now that peace has come. The film ends with the grown Simon revisiting the oaks, not alone.

The subject of Swedish Jews at this time is obviously left unexplored by this film. What we have is a story of some things that could have happened to some Jews, so realistically made that it is credible—helped further by the verity behind it. Stefan Gödicke as the vigorous father and Jan Josef Liefers as the perceptive bookseller are admirable. Once more, a juvenile actor, Jonatan S. Wächter as the young Simon, enchants. The sheer sincerity of everyone concerned bolsters the whole enterprise so that Ohlin’s historical novel-on-film holds us.

THE LEADING character in Sister,which is set in a Swiss skiing resort today, is another twelve-year-old boy named Simon. This Simon, quite different from the other, is a thief. He steals from the skiers and uses the proceeds to help him support his life with his sister, Louise, much older, who sometimes has jobs and sometimes doesn’t. Still he worships her and she more or less returns it. Their parents are said airily to be off somewhere, and their children live in a pretty good apartment.

Goggles, jackets, gloves, and of course skis are stolen and sold by Simon. Strangely little effort is made to hide the stealing or the purchasing of stolen goods. The trade is almost like an expectation in a resort. Simon knows what he is doing: when a mother at the resort gives him lunch, he knows how to play the good boy for her. All he needs to worry about, apparently, is the condition of the skis he steals. They mustn’t look too new, or it will be known that they are stolen. (He also chips some others to make them look used, for some other buyers.)

Louise, between cleaning jobs, apparently acts as something of a hooker, but this doesn’t particularly bother Simon. Only when her affair with a man seems to be growing serious does Simon reveal a fact that must not be disclosed here.

A Scot working in the resort’s restaurant is first the boy’s colleague, then his downfall, but the core of the film is the way this pair—Simon more notably than Louise—have fashioned a morality that helps them to stay together. At one point when she is angry at him, he even pays her to let him snuggle with her. Near the finish, almost like a perverse declaration of love, they have a fierce physical fight, but in the end they are looking for each other in a neat visual expression of their relationship.

Ursula Meier, who directed the film and wrote the script with Antoine Jaccoud, evidently saw the story as a peculiar truth, no less true for being peculiar. Léa Seydoux fulfills Louise, and Kacey Mottet Klein, as Simon, is one more to join the pantheon of film’s excellent child actors. 

Stanley Kauffmann reviews movies for The New Republic. This article appeared in the November 8, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Remembered Children.”