Existing in some No Man’s Land between Life Is Beautiful and Defiance, writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance tells the true story of the most famous mime in history, Marcel Marceau. Rather than focusing on how he slid his hands along invisible walls or held non-existent umbrellas, we experience his talents at the start of Hitler’s occupation of France. As a struggling actor and underling at his father’s butcher shop, Marcel (Jesse Eisenberg) learns of a resistance unit determined to rescue orphans from Nazi Germany and bring them to a hideaway in nearby Strasbourg. He uses his special skills to entertain the kids and even teaches them how to blend themselves into the background, which will come in handy at a crucial moment. Joining his brother Alain (Félix Moati) and cousin Georges (Géza Röhrig from the stirring Holocaust film, Son Of Saul), this nascent mime helps save scores of lives. Call it Shhhhhh-indler’s List.
The film starts somewhat problematically with the inexplicable casting of Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez as an Orthodox Jew who gets pulled out of his home by SS Officers and killed in front of his daughter Elsbeth (the gifted Bella Ramsey from Game Of Thrones). With nowhere to go, she ends up saved by the Resistance, where she meets Marcel, along with Emma (Clémence Poésy), who gives a well-rounded performance despite being saddled with love interest duties for Marcel. Every time he does a mime trick, for example, we cut to Emma looking impressed and amused as the soundtrack swells. This film takes virtue signaling literally.
All jokes aside, Resistance actually tells a compelling story, however embellished it may appear, and contains many white knuckle sequences involving escape, revenge, and horrifyingly close calls. When Strasbourg becomes untenable as a sanctuary, the group flees south to Lyon, forcing the children to separate and stay in separate homes and churches. It’s here where our main villain resides, Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer), also known as “The Butcher Of Lyon” due to his torturous and murderous practices at his headquarters, the Hotel Terminus. Schweighöfer gives a terrifying and detailed performance as a watchful, often smiling man who can’t contain his rage. Sure, we’ve seen this brand of Nazi many times over, but he scared me nonetheless. In the film’s only mention of the persecution of gay people, Barbie kills a “Nazi homosexual” in the middle of a crowded restaurant just to set the tone for what’s to come.
Some moments work better than others. A ludicrous sequence involves Alain getting thrown into the back of a car by the SS in the middle of town where circus performers entertain the locals. Borrowing a torch from a clown, Marcel conjures up his magical skills by spitting out a mouthful of beer on the torch to turn it into a flamethrower of sorts, burn a Nazi, and save his brother. I’m not sure if this really happened, but it felt like the studio decided to throw in some Fantastic Four outtakes into the film. Far more effective are the unpleasant torture scenes and the heart-stopping third act in a snowy forest at the French-Swiss border. In fact, there’s so much suspense, the film leaves little time to truly develop Marcel’s character. By the end, we really don’t know too much about him, except that he landed on the right side of history. It’s the price we pay when Hollywood gets its hands on “boring” history lessons, I suppose. Action always wins out over character development.
Eisenberg seems well cast, although his miming skills don’t always convince. The fact that we see him at the beginning of his career makes this forgivable. When Marceau finally has a chance to truly show off his skills, Eisenberg finds the emotional core of the mime, but not quite the physical dexterity. By this point, it doesn’t matter as this film celebrates a key point in a remarkable life. It may feel completely Hollywood-ized, filled as it is with Indiana Jones levels of derring-do, but at its core, it brings up an important question. When faced with such high stakes as the destruction of mankind, do you try to fight your enemy or save its prey? The fact that a person I had heretofore only known of as a small footnote in the world of entertainment had to make such a decision, makes me grateful for this compelling yet imperfect film.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic