In a gut-churning prologue set in 1938 Nazi Germany a young Jewish girl named Elsbeth asks her loving parents a simple but weighty question, “Why do they hate us?” Her comforting father (Édgar Ramírez) tells her to not worry and that things will soon get better. Within seconds writer- director Jonathan Jakubowicz shatters that optimism and a child’s innocence is stripped away in a flash. It’s a short yet visceral opening to “Resistance”, the true story of an uncommon hero.
In Nuremberg, Germany, 1945, General George S. Patton (Ed Harris) taken the stage at the Kongresshalle, a former Nazi rallying grounds to address a large gathering of American troops. Through what is essentially a framing device, he shares with them the story of Marcel Marceau, an aspiring stage performer and mime. Later generations would best know Marceau for his silent character Bip the Clown (among other things). But as Patton begins his story we quickly learn that Marcel’s inspirational life’s journey began well before he became famous.
The film hops back to 1938, this time to a cabaret in Strasbourg, France. On a tiny corner stage and mostly unnoticed by the crowd, Marcel (played by Jesse Eisenberg) performs his mime routine inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character. It’s what he dreams of doing, but he doesn’t get much support from his well-meaning father (Karl Markovics), a third generation kosher butcher who prefers his son to follow in the family’s footsteps.
But Marcel sees himself as “a serious actor“, spending his time working on his act rather than cutting meat or trying to win over Emma (Clémence Poésy), a young woman he wants to marry someday. She’s a part of a local activist group organized by Marcel’s cousin Georges (Géza Röhrig) to help smuggle Jewish orphans to safety. Marcel shows no interest in joining the efforts, selfishly declining Georges’ plea for help. “I’m no good with children” he weakly contends. Yet he reluctantly agrees and his entire perspective forever changes after seeing three truckloads of frightened children, among them young Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey) from the prologue.
It’s here than Jakubowicz makes one of several smart choices. Marcel begins using mime to comfort the children, but never in a silly or mawkish way. In fact, it’s an essential yet pretty small part of the story. Jakubowicz wisely sticks to his timeline, making this more about wartime heroism than artistic expression. “Resistance” chronicles Marcel’s brave and often harrowing early life which unquestionable helped shape the renowned peacetime performer he would later become.
After Germany invades Poland, French border towns are ordered to evacuate. The entire population of Strasbourg (including Marcel’s family) head for southern France, leaving everything behind expecting to return soon. Of course their lives were never the same. In six short weeks Hitler’s Germany conquered Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and then much of France including Paris. Not long after, the rest of the country fell to Nazi rule.
The group lead the children to Limoges, hiding them with local families and churches. It’s the only instance in the movie where the time gap seems curious as the nearly 400-mile trek is passed over. Nonetheless the danger remains which inspires Marcel, his brother Alain (Félix Moati), Emma and her sister Mila (Vica Kerekes) to join the French Resistance. The four travel to Lyon which suffers under the brutal fist of SS officer Klaus Barbie known as “The Butcher of Lyon” (he’s played with disquieting menace by Matthias Schweighöfer). Barbie is instantly made into the movie’s chief villain. And while there is no evidence that Barbie and Marceau ever crossed paths, the Gestapo head’s barbaric presence in Lyon is well documented and several of his actions we see are pulled from true accounts.
After facing Barbie’s brutality Marcel finds himself at a crossroads. Do you fight and die just to kill a few Nazis or is living and saving the lives of others the greatest form of resistance? For Marcel the answer is an easy one, setting up a tension-soaked final act which teaches us that that not every form of resistance came at the end of a gun.
All of Eisenberg’s normal acting ticks are put to good use. His Marcel is timid, slightly neurotic, even a little bratty when we first meet him. All things the actor can do in his sleep. But even when his character becomes a hero, he’s still fraught with uncertainty and insecurity. While his accent may not always be convincing, Eisenberg brings plenty of sincerity and emotion making this one of strongest performances. Poésy is even better, serving as much more than your standard love interest. In fact any hint of a romance is passed through fleeting looks or gentle smiles. We know it’s there but it’s never intended to be a major story point. This allows Poésy to extend her character and performance into several satisfying directions.
Keenly shot, deeply affecting, and historically valuable, “Resistance” brings to surface another largely unknown true story of courage and sacrifice set during the Holocaust. I say this often, but I’m glad filmmakers are still plowing this ground and unearthing these powerful stories which need to be told. Marcel Marceau would go on to become the world’s most famous mime artist. In 2001 he wrote “Destiny permitted me to live. This is why I have to bring hope to people who struggle in the world.” With “Resistance” Jonathan Jakubowicz opens ours eyes to the weight of that statement while shining a much deserved light on a truly remarkable life.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS