[Interview] ‘RESISTANCE’ director tells little-known story of a famous French mime’s wartime nobility

0
Edgar Ramirez, left, is Sigmund and Bella Ramsey is Elspeth in ‘RESISTANCE.’ Courtesy of IFC Films.

Preston Barta // Features Editor

At the opening of IFC Films’ upcoming historical thriller RESISTANCE, a Jewish father (Edgar Ramírez) can be seen reading a happily-ever-after bedtime story to his daughter, Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey), before breaking into prayer. Just as the father is prepared to send his child off into her dreams, Elsbeth asks her dad why Nazis hate them. Letting out an audible breath, he replies: “I don’t think they hate us. Hitler is just blaming us for the suffering of the working class, and some people choose to believe him.” Perplexed, Elsbeth adds: “But why?” 

It’s the kind of strenuous question we all get asked by our children from time to time. And just as the story’s father responds to his child, it is not so simple to answer. 

One of the toughest aspects of parenting is talking to your kids about challenging subjects. It’s hard enough as is to explain to my son why his stuffed Buzz Lightyear lost its wings to the washing machine, or why his lost dump truck has never been found. The significant issues can feel so impossible to put into words, but sooner or later, we have to cross that bridge. 

Similar to Taika Waititi’s subversive JOJO RABBITRESISTANCE pivots a harrowing chapter of history through a youthful perspective. However, while JOJO helps children to grasp the realities of the Holocaust, RESISTANCE informs parents of how to discuss it with them. 

Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz (HANDS OF STONE), the film recounts the story of French mime-to-be Marcel Marceau (a terrific Jesse Eisenberg), who – with the help of the titular movement against the Nazi German occupation of France during the Second World War – made heroic efforts to save hundreds of orphans from the Holocaust. 

Dressed as Charlie Chaplin, Jesse Eisenberg portrays Marcel Marceau – a famous French mime who served in the French Resistance to save orphan children from the Holocaust. Courtesy of IFC Films.

In a recent interview with Jakubowicz, the Venezuelan filmmaker, declared RESISTANCE as his most ambitious and personal project yet. Not far off from the angle taken in Roberto Benigni’s 1997 war drama LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, Jakubowicz uses his clownish protagonist to distract children from Nazi barbarity while never diminishing the state of affairs. 

“The reason I made this film is because its story is relatively unknown. Many know Marceau as an entertainer, but they may not know he also was Jewish and saved orphan children from Nazis during the war,” Jakubowicz said. “I fell in love with this story as soon as I heard it. I felt compelled to share it. Additionally, both sides of my family are Polish Jews who lost most of their relatives to the tragic times. I felt like I had to make it for them as well.” 

Jakubowicz breathes a lot of his personal history into RESISTANCE, including through the character of Elsbeth. The young girl was inspired by the tale of the filmmaker’s aunt, who was saved by an orphanage in a church during the Holocaust. 

“My education is in journalism, and I do a lot of journalistic research for all my films, especially this one. However, when I was doing my research for RESISTANCE, I couldn’t find a specific story by one of the children that Marceau saved. I thought if I was going to create one from fiction, I should draw from another story of a Holocaust survivor whose story I know well,” Jakubowicz said. “I gave my aunt the honor of having a fraction of her story told in the film.” 

As anyone could imagine, the film was an incredibly emotional journey for Jakubowicz. In addition to his aunt’s ties, RESISTANCE was shot in Germany and the Czech Republic. Jakubowicz’s grandfather used to live in Prague before the war and lost all his brothers during it. 

Jesse Eisenberg, left, and Clémence Poésy star in ‘RESISTANCE.’ Courtesy of IFC Films.

“Every second I was there shooting felt like reconnecting with the story of my family. Even when we were filming in Munich, I was living in an apartment that was just three blocks away from Hitler’s apartment,” the director said. “There wasn’t a moment in which I could step away from this tragic event in history and the feeling that this horror is staring at me.” 

Despite the saddening parallels and connections, Jakubowicz used these subtle reminders and triggers as fuel to keep moving forward. He did not let the story’s material weigh him down, either. Jakubowicz says he spent many happy years researching, writing, preparing and shooting the film. 

“It’s an inspirational story, and it’s different from most World War II movies in that sense,” Jakubowicz said, before expressing how we live in a time when being inspired is necessary and rare. “I feel proud that we were able to capture a story that does that.” 

One scene, in particular that highlights the film’s encouraging tone is arguably its most memorable sequence. In the scene, Eisenberg’s Marceau is having a heartbreaking conversation with a fellow member of the French Resistance, Emma (HARRY POTTER’s Clémence Poésy).

Emma had just escaped the Nazi’s clutches after witnessing the most horrible sight anyone could ever see. Disheartened by the experiences and eager for revenge, Emma wants the Resistance to kill the Nazi officer (a skin-crawlingly good Matthias Schweighöfer) responsible for her loss. Remorseful, Marceau advises they shouldn’t fight a war they cannot win when they could be taking orphan children to another country before the Nazis get to them. 

“What’s the best way to resist? It’s not to kill them,” Eisenberg’s character says. “[Nazis] are ready to die [for their cause]. If you want to resist, [the Resistance] needs to make sure more Jews survive.” 

Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau during the film’s conclusion. Courtesy of IFC Films.

“There were a limited amount of resources available when making the film, yet it feels like a historical epic,” Jakubowicz said. “Every day, I would think that it would be impossible to achieve everything we needed to accomplish that day, but then it happened. I feel there was some power pushing the story forward. Sometimes it feels like the movie directed itself. I genuinely think the movie is better than me because of all the talents that came together to tell it.” 

One of those talents is, of course, Eisenberg, who turns in one of his best performances as Marceau. Often we are used to seeing Eisenberg portraying socially stunted individuals or in comedically darker roles. In RESISTANCE, on the other hand, Eisenberg has infectious confidence that makes him a joy to be around. Just as he does for the kids in the film, he puts you at ease during the most intense situations – and the film is a work that ties your stomach in knots without many breaks. 

“I’m grateful for [Eisenberg’s contributions.] His mother was a professional clown – and as a child, he watched his mother paint her face every day to go to work. He also had family perish in the Holocaust. It was just as much a personal story to him as it was for me,” Jakubowicz said. 

According to the director, Eisenberg was Jakubowicz’s first choice. He wrote the role, envisioning Eisenberg for the part. Once the actor came on board, the two storytellers spent months together perfecting the script. Eisenberg worked with a mime and studied Marceau for nearly two years. As impressive as Eisenberg’s physical performance is, the character’s emotional arc matches it. 

“Marceau starts a bit self-centered, but eventually he arrives at a generous place. I think it’s the key to what helps the audience connect with the film. At the end of the day, the movie has to work on an emotional level,” Jakubowicz concluded. 

Jakubowicz took a lot of care in capturing Marceau’s story, and it’s evident in the film. It principally shows in the final moments of the narrative when Eisenberg, dressed in full mime makeup, communicates many of the emotions felt throughout the cinematic journey in a singular stage performance. It’s the very scene Jakubowicz wishes he could share with Marceau himself, who passed in 2007 at the age of 84. 

Taking the whole film into consideration, however, I think the chalk-faced entertainer and war hero would be proud.

RESISTANCE is now available on digital and cable platforms.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.