A Tribute to Marcel Marceau
Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance is an old-fashioned story of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France. It features a sarcastically reluctant hero, a mentally unbalanced sadistic villain, and nail-biter last-minute escapes and is focused on a Nazi-fighting mime, Marcel Mangel (who later changed his surname to Marceau). Marceau is the son of a Jewish butcher living in Strasbourg, France. He tires of wearing a smock and cutting up meat in his father’s shop and prefers putting on a Chaplin mustache and greasepaint to his face in order to clown around in cabarets. His more traditionally minded father, Charles (Karl Markovics), disapproves of Marcel’s creative life and the audiences he performs for are more interested in dancing girls.
This is a light family drama despite opening scene in which Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey), a young Jewish girl in Munich, sees her parents gunned down during the Kristallnacht pogrom. But these early scenes skillfully illustrate the melancholic nature of Marcel’s clowning and also establish just how little the future superstar and his community understood the extent of the danger just a few miles away in Germany.
Marcel becomes involved with the arrival of a truckload of Jewish orphans, including Elsbeth. They were ransomed from the Nazis and the orphans are put up in a nearby castle and watched over by a troop of Jewish Boy and Girl Scouts. Marceau was made to feel guilty by his brother Sigmund (Édgar Ramirez) and begins helping out. Through his cousin, Georges (Géza Röhrig), Marcel got the opportunity to assist Jewish children who have lost their parents, keeping them laughing through miming. He has his own motive— he is anxious to impress a girl named Emma (Clemence Poesy) and uses his clowning to keep the kids entertained.
The director’s determination to keep the story’s focus on the fight against the Nazis becomes clear once war begins and France is occupied and all Jews in the country become targets. Marcel becomes responsible for more orphans and with his compatriots relocates to Lyon and joins the resistance. The Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer), a sadist who likes to play the piano while executing people in the empty pool of his fancy headquarters at the Hotel Terminus. Barbie is a sociopath who keeps the immediacy of Marcel’s mission front and center.
After the action shifts to Lyon, Marcel’s group has to balance keeping themselves and the orphans alive in France or escaping to Switzerland. Eisenberg’s Marceau shows his skill for signaling vulnerability and resolve at the same time. His theatrical exaggeration of miming allows him to express physically. While Marcel mimes, we’re able to concentrate on his eyes and face, which give both a lightness and an emotionality to his movements while at the same time silent and focused. Marcel’s life touched many, and everyone within this film becomes a bit insignificant in his shadow. The film totally belongs to Marceau.
There are moments of emotional authenticity that make Marceau convincing and riveting. We see him not as a superhero but as an “ordinary” human being thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The fear, the confusion, the anxiety are all written on Eisenberg’s face as he feels his way into the new uncomfortable position of responsibility for others’ lives. So are the joy and the delight when his pantomime helps him chase away the ghosts that haunt him and his charges.
Jakubowicz sees these extraordinary circumstances that turned Marceau into the great artist he dreamed of being but feared the war would not let him become. It was the children that gave purpose to his art and taught him to use it to help those who needed it. The film is very close to Jakubowicz, a Venezuelan filmmaker of Polish Jewish descent, whose grandparents on both sides are Holocaust survivors,. He found the story of Marceau’s role in the French Jewish underground by accident. He didn’t even know Marceau was Jewish and became intrigued because it was a story of Jews rescuing Jews during the Holocaust—something only rarely seen on screen.