Friday, March 27, 2020

Resistance: Marcel Marceau Defies the German Occupation

During WWII, underground partisans had to keep their mouths shut to be effective, so yes Marcel Marceau was good at it. He already had ambitions to perform on stage, but his underdog humanist empathy compelled him to help guide refugee children to neutral Switzerland. The real-life Marceau’s filmography is a bit spotty (a small part in Barbarella, the only speaking role in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie), but Jesse Eisenberg does a nice job portraying him in Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance, which releases today on VOD (it would have opened in theaters too, but you know.)

Clearly, Marceau must be talented, because Gen. George S. Patton serves as his opening act in the flashforward prologue. When the proper narrative starts, Marcel Magnel is still working in his observant Jewish father’s Strasbourg butcher shop, but by night he performs Chaplinesque routines for unappreciative night club audiences. His father does not think very much of his performance art either. However, when Magnel agrees to help welcome a busload of newly arrived Jewish orphans to their new chateau sanctuary, he suddenly finds an appreciative audience for is gentle pantomime.

A bond quickly forms between Magnel/Marceau and the kids, which finally impresses his longtime crush, Emma. The local relief organization also starts noticing the supposedly irresponsible Marcel is around much more often than his self-proclaimed activist brother Sigmund. However, as the war starts to turn against free France, all three take leading roles teaching the children survival skills and then join the Resistance together—at the worst possible time. Yet, instead of seeking vengeance, Marceau (the name on his forged papers) prefers to embrace life, by saving as many of the refugee children as he can.

Although Eisenberg performs plenty of bits associated with Marceau and Chaplin, the film never wallows in the sad clown schmaltz of Life is Beautiful or the twee preciousness of Jojo Rabbit. Nobody needs to tell these kids about war or death. They understand just as well as the adults. It also helps that Eisenberg achieves a nice balance for Magnel/Marceau, depicting his artistic sensitivity just as well as his gutsy resolve.

Ed Harris only appears briefly, but he leaves us wanting to see a longer, fuller portrayal of Patton from him. Karl Markovics (star of The Counterfeiters) is terrific as Magnel’s father, while young Bella Ramsey shows tremendous range as Elsbeth, the primary POV orphan. Matthias Schweighofer plays SS commander Klaus Barbie with the sort of fierce viciousness the part requires but few films have the commitment to portray, but Clemence Poesey seems miscast as the tragic Emma.

Jakubowicz keeps the scope relatively narrow, so you really can’t describe the film as an epic. However, he never sugar-coats the nature of war, making it clear any character could die at any time (obviously except Marceau, since we know what he would accomplish in peace time). It is a very good, engaging film that is arguably under-hyped. Recommended for general audiences, Resistance releases today on VOD.