Producers: Jonathan Jakubowicz. Claudine Jakubowicz, Dan Maag, Carlos Garcia de Paredes and Patrick Zorer Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz Screenplay: Jonathan Jakubowicz Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Clémence Poésy, Matthias Schweighöfer, Félix Moati, Géza Röhrig, Karl Markovics, Bella Ramsey, Vica Kerekes, Ed Harris and Edgar Ramírez Distributor: IFC Films
Most people today might not know of Marcel Marceau, but until his death in 2007 he was the most famous mime in the world—one of the jokes in Mel Brooks’s “Silent Movie” was that he was the only person in the cast who spoke, the single word “Non” (after doing one of his routines, of a man in the wind). But even those who do recognize the name are probably unaware that he was a heroic figure in the French resistance during World War II, later earning high honors from the government for his role in saving refugee Jewish orphans from the Nazis. Jonathan Jakubowicz’s film is a celebration of that early phase of Marceau’s life, a period during which he honed his craft as a performer as a means of keeping the children entertained—and quiet—as he and his comrades spirited them across the border to Switzerland while being pursued by the German occupiers.
Given his language abilities, ironically enough, Marceau also served as a liaison in the army of General George S. Patton, and the film begins with a scene—based loosely on fact—in which he performed before a large group of American soldiers, here introduced by Patton (Ed Harris) himself, who speaks eloquently of his bravery. The film closes with that performance as a bookend.
After that prologue “Resistance” returns to 1938, when we see a young German girl named Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey) watch Nazi thugs murder her parents on Kristallnacht. She is among the children brought to Strasbourg, where young Marcel Mangel (Jesse Eisenberg) works in his family’s butcher shop while performing a Chaplinesque routine in a local pub, much to the distress of his father Charles (Karl Markovics). Pressured by his brother Alain (Félix Moati)) and cousin Georges (Géza Röhrig), and encouraged by his infatuation with a local girl named Emma (Clémence Poésy), Marcel—who claims not to care for children—is enlisted to help herd a group of young German refugees—including Elsbeth—to places of safety.
Of course, Marcel’s gift for mime makes him a favorite of the youngsters, and he soon becomes an integral part of the group, in which he poses as a scout leader to the children, who pose as Christian students (and choristers, chanting numbers like “Ave Maria”).
Jakubowicz’s film follows the story through Germany’s invasion of France in 1940 and its establishment of the puppet Vichy regime. It recounts some of the more exciting, and dangerous, episodes of the resistance group’s actions—a few of them with a tragic outcome—always spotlighting Marcel’s role in them (including his alteration of his surname to “Marceau” on official documents—another of the talents he employed on behalf of his colleagues).
It’s in this context that the script places major emphasis on the figure of Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer), the notorious Butcher of Lyon, whose viciousness in dealing with those he sees as enemies of the Reich (and of his own position as the chief Nazi enforcer in France)—including the torture and execution of prisoners in the pool at the infamous Hôtel Terminus—are prominently featured. In this section the script is structured as a sort of cat-and-mouse game between Marceau and Barbie, with a prolonged confrontation between them on a train as Marceau is taking his “scout troupe” north to attempt a crossing of the border serving as a suspenseful centerpiece. (Whether such a one-on-one ever happened is another issue.) Schweighöfer gives a showy performance as the sinister Gestapo man (we’re even shown a flashback to his brutalization of gay Nazis in Germany to reinforce his villainy); it verges on parody, but is so expertly calibrated that you can’t help but appreciate it as a flamboyant piece of theatre. It certainly adds fizz to the picture.
By contrast Eisenberg’s earnest turn comes off as a mite pallid, and while his natural boyish quality almost justifies his playing much younger than his actual age, his attempts to replicate Marceau’s performance manner, especially in the big finale, are more dutiful than convincing.
The rest of the cast are adequate, though Markovics enjoys some touching moments as Marcel’s father.
“Resistance” takes optimal advantage of location work in the Czech Republic to achieve a convincing forties look. Tomas Voth’s production design and M.I. Littin-Menz’s cinematography are excellent, and though the editing by Jakubowicz and Alexander Berner doesn’t always keep things ideally clear in the action sequences (and might have shaved a few minutes off a two-hour running time), the film is never dull, with Angelo Milli’s score adding to the urgent mood.
Jakubowicz clearly aims to honor Marceau’s wartime heroism, but while the subject certainly deserves recognition, his film fails to do it full justice.