Did you know that the iconic French mime Marcel Marceau (1923-2007) was once an unsung hero of the French Resistance, smuggling Jewish children across the border into Switzerland with the Nazis in pursuit? This fact-based World War II story is the core of Resistance, starring Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Mangel (only later did he adapt the stage name of Marceau), the son of a Jewish butcher (Karl Markovics) living in Strasbourg, France. Though Eisenberg acts with physical finesse, the film is quick to make clear that Marcel never saw himself as a savior. In 1938-39, his main goal was to escape the drudgery of serving meat to customers in his father’s shop. All he wanted to do was perform on the cabaret stage, imitate the mime antics of the great Charlie Chaplin, and flirt with chorus girls.
In a horrific opening scene, set in Munich, writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz (Secuestro Express, Hands of Stone) shows us a young Jewish girl named Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey) traumatized by watching her parents murdered in the pogrom known as Kristallnacht. But to Marcel in Strasbourg, the Holocaust seems remote. Until, of course, it isn’t.
The eye-opener for him comes when a group of Jewish orphans, including Elsbeth, are smuggled into Strasbourg under the guise of the Boy and Girl Scouts and a foundation organized by his cousin Georges (Géza Röhrig), whose first-hand accounts add authenticity to the screenplay. His resistance-fighter brother Alain (Felix Moati) had to push hard to get the younger Marcel — who claimed to be “not good with children” — to help these frightened kids as the Germans continued to occupy France. It helped that Marcel was attracted to fellow resister Emma (Clemence Poesy). It helped more that the young man was a gifted forger able to fake passports as they moved south to Lyon.
It’s the interplay between the children and the reluctant freedom fighter that rivets your attention. Marcel learns quickly that his talents can entertain and distract the young ones in the manner that recalls Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful. But Resistance artfully skirts that film’s mawkish sentimentality as Marcel teaches kids real-world benefits in the “art of silence.” This fact is compellingly illustrated during a train trip to the border, when he and his young students are interrupted by a Nazi contingent headed by genocidal SS officer Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer). The tension is palpable when the so-called “butcher of Lyon” — shown ordering the execution of Jews while playing the piano — mistakes Marcel’s Chaplin mustache and the youngsters’ laughter for mockery of Hitler. Luckily, our hero cleverly diverts his attention and the kids hide their fear by showing lessons well-learned in applying a poker face.
Yes, Resistance takes dramatic license, drifting into Nazi stereotypes and Hollywood action clichés. There’s also the fact that Eisenberg, 36, is playing a Marcel who was barely 16 when the events of the film transpired. Still, there’s no doubting the emotional commitment of all involved to a story that honors the communal struggle against deadly forces (draw your own parallels to our current health crisis). It’s only after the liberation of Paris in 1944, when Gen. George Patton (Ed Harris) introduces this artist in his trademark performance makeup to the troops, that Eisenberg gets to play the Marceau of legend. No matter. Jakubowicz achieves maximum impact by keeping our eyes on the man in the invisible box, one trying to teach children that the power of art can literally be a saving grace.