At the time of his death in 2007, Marcel Marceau was the world’s most famous mime. But in 1938-’39, when World War II rescue drama “Resistance” takes place, Jewish-born Marcel Mangel was just 15 years old (two decades younger than actor Jesse Eisenberg, who plays him here) and had not yet adopted his stage name, much less the stage. As it happens, this would be the most exciting chapter of his life — and one about which the tight-lipped performer seldom spoke — making for a fresh entry point to an otherwise familiar if ever relevant subject.
Drawn from research and firsthand interviews with Marceau’s cousin, Jewish Boy Scouts leader Georges Loinger, the historical thriller tells of Marceau’s heroic efforts to save hundreds of orphans from the Holocaust. It’s an ambitious project for “Secuestro Express” director Jonathan Jakubowicz, and his approach feels more in line with Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” — whose clownish protagonist sought to distract his son from Nazi atrocities while never diminishing the real-world impact of those events to viewers — than last year’s more subversive “Jojo Rabbit,” which used satire as a tool to combat anti-Semitism and hate.
Early in “Resistance,” Marcel describes himself as “not good with children,” and yet, it turns out, he’s uniquely suited to entertaining them, while his improvisational nature proves an asset as well. Later, while escorting a group of children to the border by train, he comes face-to-face with infamous SS officer Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer). It’s a tense scene in which the chilling Nazi villain mistakes Marcel’s paste-on Chaplin mustache for a way to make fun of Adolf Hitler. “I think it’s important to help the children laugh in the middle of this war,” explains Marcel, and there are glimpses of that philosophy in practice, as the aspiring actor practices the comical performance style that would become his signature in peacetime.
But “Resistance” is more serious than not, and because the once-famous Marceau is forgotten by or unknown to many audiences, for the film to dwell on his pantomime persona would be to lose itself in the footnote to a footnote of history. Instead, Jakubowicz uses Marceau as just one character in a broader and considerably grimmer reminder of the evils Europe faced under Nazi Germany, focusing on one of those rare but inspiring cases where lives were spared. The story concerns the rescue of children, but its depiction of ruthless violence and torture makes it unsuitable for young audiences.
Raised by a Jewish butcher (Karl Markovics, recognizable from concentration camp drama “The Counterfeiters”), the young Marcel defies his father’s wishes to follow in the family business, spending his free time painting and practicing his Chaplin routine in the local cabaret. Convincingly re-created in the Czech Republic, the film takes place primarily in occupied France, where normal citizens informed on their neighbors in exchange for meager privileges, and where Marcel’s older brother Alain (Felix Moati) was active in the French Resistance.
Under the pretext of organizing a scouting camp for Jewish children, Marcel’s cousin Georges (Géza Röhrig) and the Save the Children Foundation pay a fortune to divert Jewish orphans from the concentration camps to a castle. It’s at this point that Marcel gets involved. Eisenberg portrays Marcel as clumsy and awkward in real-life situations, but intuitive and graceful when play-acting, and he almost instantly realizes that his gifts have a practical application when trying to make kids feel more comfortable in an intimidating situation.
Jakubowicz takes more generous creative license when imagining how the actor’s budding clown skills might come in handy, resulting in an elaborate (if somewhat implausible) maneuver to spring Georges from Nazi clutches in a crowded town square. In a way, such a scene might play better if the action hero weren’t someone history views as so likably benign.
A romantic subplot between Marcel and a fellow Resistance fighter named Emma (Clémence Poesy), whose courage outstrips his own, similarly clouds our view of the man Marceau would become, while suggesting some rather conventional thinking in what makes audiences care about characters. Watching Marcel perform a wordless routine just for Emma, culminating with a flourish in which he produces a paper flower for her benefit, feels like something one might expect in a far tackier movie.
That’s because “Resistance” tells a story that’s plenty strong on its own terms, and if anything, it’s a bonus that one of the key participants should survive to become famous. Afforded depth and gravitas by Angelo Milli’s string score, the film hardly needs the framing device in which Ed Harris appears as Gen. George S. Patton, regaling his troops with Marceau’s story before inviting him onstage for his first public show.
Seemingly uncomfortable in his own body to begin with, Eisenberg bears an uncanny resemblance to the renowned mime, and he has clearly dedicated himself to learning a few basic routines, but they don’t feel organic to the places in which his character uses them in the film. If anything, Marcel comes off like one of those Super Friends with relatively lame powers (say, Aquaman), where the writers must strive extra hard to devise excuses for him to use his highly specialized skills.
“Resistance” features one scene so absurd it becomes laughable, but not in a good way. After Barbie realizes his soldiers have been bested by a mime, he rounds up half a dozen clowns (in full costume), lines them up in a public swimming pool and executes them. Whether or not the moment was based in fact, the darkness Marceau must have grappled with, after witnessing what he did during the war, is soul-crushing. If anything, it’s his capacity to recover and spread joy to others, rather than allowing these events to scar him for life, that seems most remarkable, giving added meaning to the word “Resistance.”