Resistance star Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t usually play the heroic type. The hyperactive, jittery, and neurotic star generally excels at playing douchebags or introverts. However, he’s an ideal reluctant hero, as is his character in Resistance, Marcel Magnel.
Audiences might best know Magnel by his adopted name Marcel Marceau or his stage name Marcel the Mime. Resistance offers an unconventional super hero origin story of sorts for Marcel the Mime. The film, written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz (Hands of Stone), is a true tale of ordinary people moved to extraordinary acts. Resistance tells the overlooked story of Marceau’s youth in which he helped save thousands of Jewish orphans during the Holocaust. It’s an incredible story overshadowed by Marceau’s celebrity, but arguably made far more interesting by it.
An Origin Story, of Sorts
Long before Jojo Rabbit inspired some laughs during wartime, Marceau used humour to give children strength. The film takes audiences to Strasbourg, France in 1938. The threat of Hitler’s army looms over France, especially the bordertowns, but citizens like Marcel Magnel soldier on. Marcel remains a dreamer, secretly performing his silent stand-up comedy routines in cabarets by night and working in his father’s butchery by day. However, when his crush Emma (Clémence Poésy) asks him to join the résistance and lend his talents, he summons some good old-fashioned courage.
The mission, however, is not what he expects. Emma and her fellow resistance fighters harbour a large school of children. They’re orphans, children of Jews murdered in the streets by the Nazis. Marcel’s task is therefore both simple and serious. He must make the children laugh again and inspire them to rally their spirits. In the spirit of Roberto Benigni’s Guido from Life Is Beautiful, Marcel harnesses the power of humour and escapism. To give people hope is to offer the resistance a powerful weapon.
Humour and the Holocaust
Eisenberg has an unexpected knack for physical comedy. For an actor who usually excels through sarcastic or acerbic line delivery, he’s remarkably warm and funny while conjuring Marceau’s life-affirming spirit. Resistance explores the mime’s ability to stretch his talents and prove physical comedy as more than mugging for dimes. The comedy evolves during his tenure with the resistance. It comforts the children, but gradually teaches them essential survival skills, all the while softening the blow of their awful reality through humour in the way that child’s play lets Jojo make sense of wartime in Taika Waititi’s film.
While Resistance evokes the spirit of both Life Is Beautiful and Jojo Rabbit, it might suffer by comparison. Waititi and Benigni’s films are equally loved and reviled for approaching stories of the Holocaust through humour. However, the directors inspire such waves of passionate support or disdain because they take risks. They own and assert their voices as artists. Jakubowicz, unfortunately, does not do that. Resistance gives a fascinating story and hero a run-of-the-mill approach. It’s well crafted, particularly its action set pieces, although safe by any standard. Resistance won’t offend anyone in the way that Life Is Beautiful and Jojo Rabbit do, but it isn’t likely to inspire the same levels of enthusiasm, either.
Marcel Saves the Day
Resistance generally abides by the rules of the Holocaust movie playbook. The Nazis are sinister, the violence is tense but largely off screen, and the romance is tragic. Issues of pacing and structure also leave a viewer expecting bigger drama, as Resistance begins with flyby cameos from Edgar Ramírez as an ill fated Jew and Ed Harris as General Patton. The latter randomly returns in the film’s finale as Marcel Marceau introduces Marcel the Mime for the troops. The film could use more elements of Marceau’s biography in place of the filler it often favours. Jakubowicz frequently cuts away from the resistance to develop the story of Marcel’s foil, Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer). The Nazi is a Hans Landa figure that lets Schweighöfer be nasty without eliciting Christoph Waltz’s memorable cartoonishness. Barbie’s absence of a personality makes him somewhat less sinister, but an appropriate cog in the Nazi machine.
Some totally random scenes in which Jakubowicz’s highlights Barbie’s evil, however, don’t do the villain any favours. In perhaps the film’s most memorable scene—memorable for all the wrong reasons—Barbie executes a half dozen clowns in an empty swimming pool. He and Marcel have yet to interact at this point of the film, and the image of clowns getting their brains blown out is as pointless as it is tasteless. Similarly, a tense negotiation between Barbie, Emma, and a fellow resistance fighter veers on Saw territory with its teased-out torture porn. Perhaps Jakubowicz roots these scenes in reality, but such material isn’t easy to watch amid a global pandemic. The scenes of Marcel lifting spirits through humour, however, are welcome medicine. Once again, Marcel saves the day.
Resistance is now available on iTunes and Apple TV.