As I watched Resistance last night, one question kept popping into my head: how has this piece of history not been made into a movie before? Like most of my generation, I grew up recognizing Marcel Marceau as the world-famous French mime. But I had no idea he was a Jewish fighter in the French Resistance, who helped hundreds if not thousands of kids escape the concentration camps.
Happily, writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz has brought together an excellent international cast, with Jesse Eisenberg in the lead role, to repair this knowledge gap with a very good film. Spanning seven years, it opens on Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938), as a horrified Jewish girl Elsbeth witnesses the murder of her doting parents on the streets of Munich. Here, as elsewhere in Resistance, the violence is implied emotionally to great effect, rather than shown graphically. Next, a second prologue has General Patton (Ed Harris) in Nuremberg, gathering steam to tell the story of an unknown aspiring actor who heroically rose to the demands of his time.
The body of the film then commences in Strasbourg, France, with young Marcel sneaking away from his father’s butcher shop to hone his skills in a cabaret. Both his father Charles (Karl Markovics) and brother Sigmund (Edgar Ramírez) chide Marcel for what they perceive to be artistic delusions of grandeur.
Sigmund and their cousin Georges (Géza Röhrig, the lead in the superb 2015 Auschwitz drama Son of Saul) are politically savvy and anticipate the Nazi poison will soon burst Germany’s boundaries. As such, they’re prepared when an onrush of Jewish child refugees arrives in their border city, including Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey, showing an impressively broader range than her portrayal of Game of Thrones’ Lyanna Mormont allowed).
While Sigmund and Georges, along with a pair of sisters Emma (Clémence Poésy) and Mila (Vica Kerekes), dive into the task of housing 123 kids in a nearby castle, Marcel is far more reluctant. A smart bit of rotating camerawork, here and in one other major scene, conveys Marcel’s anxious vertigo before he commits himself, miming playfully to calm the fearful children.
With these early scenes, most of our cast is in place. As the Nazis occupy France, they fight to stay a step ahead, ultimately landing in Lyon, a center of French Resistance. There, they are up against Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer), the baby-faced Gestapo head who deservedly earned his nickname, “the Butcher of Lyon.” Versus a numerically superior force, our resisters must decide whether to focus their energies on killing Nazis or moving precariously hidden children to safer Switzerland.
I’ve seen criticism of Jakubowicz’s film claiming it jumps around too much. While Resistance does hop storylines frequently, it’s done in the service of character development, and each thread stays coherent. However, though I’ve not been able to confirm this, I suspect Jakubowicz jazzed up the action in at least a couple of scenes to give them more Hollywood punch. On the plus side, using Czech and German locations, his sets appear authentically of the time period. Only a climactic Alpine sequence looked stagey and artificial.
Every actor in Resistance throws themselves into their roles completely, with nary a dud in the bunch. Out of this fine ensemble, Jesse Eisenberg deserves particular praise. It was jarring at first to see the star of Zombieland and The Social Network starting to mime, but his extensive training with a Marceau protégé definitely paid off. Eisenberg brings admirable dimensionality to his portrayal, furnishing Marceau with a believable mix of fear, decisive action, compassion for the kids, and romantic affection for Emma.
In his interviews about this film, Jakubowicz – a Venezuelan Jew of Polish descent – has spoken of the personal resonances of Marceau’s heroism, as both of his parents lost numerous relatives to the Nazi genocide. This gives an added power to Jakubowicz’s manner of bracketing his film. He opens with Elsbeth asking her parents, “Why do they hate us?” He closes with a title against black, stating “we will never forget.” Resistance is a story well-told, and a useful instrument in the never-ending battle against historical amnesia.
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )