by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday April 3, 2020


Even if you don't like mimes, you've probably heard of Marcel Marceau, who — the new World War II movie "Resistance" reminds us — is regarded as having been "the most important Mime of all time."

What you may not know is that in his youth Marceau worked with the French resistance against Nazi occupiers. Chief among the accomplishments of Jewish resistors was the saving of ten thousand children — a drop in the bucket next to more than one million Jewish children murdered by the Nazis (not to mention children belonging to what was labeled "dangerous groups" such as those with handicaps — factoring those in, the total of murdered children rises to 1.5 million). But where there is life there is hope, and memory; despite what you may have heard, resistance is not futile, after all.

But it is expensive, in terms of blood, fear, and suffering. The film, which was written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, takes the form of an extended flashback, with the story being introduced by an American general (Ed Harris) addressing U.S. soldiers in Nuremberg. This much is historically accurate: Marceau did debut before an audience of 3,000 American soldiers in 1944 (not counting, of course, his pre-war gigs at cabarets in his home town of Strasbourg, France).

Marceau is played, with physical deftness, by Jesse Eisenberg (whose accent is unsteady, but whose poise is acute). Marceau as a young man is cheeky, focused, and talented; his father, a butcher, doesn't understand why his son would want to be "a clown" (and obviously doesn't understand the performing arts, either), and his older brother Sigmund (Edgar Ramrez) thinks of Marceau as merely elf-absorbed. But the young thesp has more going on than his family realizes, and when a flood of orphans arrive — ransomed, we heard, for a fortune from the Nazis, who have slaughtered their parents — he puts his talents to good use, diverting and nurturing the kids. (This, of course, only proves his fitness as marriageable material to his girlfriend, Emma [Clmence Posy].)

A year later, when the Nazis invade France, Marceau and his family help shepherd the youngsters to safer environs. Even then, however, the reprieve is temporary; it's not long before the Nazis take over the entire country. Among the Nazi horde is an ambitious young sociopath named Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighfer) whose work — to his sadistic pleasure — intersects with his penchant for killing and tormenting people.

The film is handsomely produced, but blocky in tone and structure. There's not a lot of subtlety; we're hit over the head with everything that should come across organically, from a brief treatise on what drives nations into bigoted homicidal frenzies (we're offered two reasons, one economic and the other psychological) to demonstrations of Barbie's insane bloodlust that are so ham-handed they make later attempts to give him depth and nuance by portraying him as a family man feel unconvincing. (Even here, we're shown someone who's operating not from ideals but from a savage delight in his own barbarism; after bragging about his professional status to his wife, Barbie declares, "I didn't get here by being nice to our enemies!" It's true enough — in a state founded on psychopathy, after all, psychopaths will rise in rank — but the writing and direction fall just barely short of pasting a moustache onto his lip, the better for a bit of melodramatic twirling.

Also clumsy are the transitions, which are accompanied by blocks of text that tell us about the war's progress. Movies can and should impart historical information, but they often find ways to do so that feel less intrusive. Not, alas, in this case. Nor do the various episodes feel of a piece; we veer from saving children to fighting with the resistance in Lyon to brutal slayings carried out in an empty swimming pool (say what you like about their monstrous skill at genocide; the Nazis were nothing if not pragmatic). Eventually, we return to the theme of saving children. One orphan in particular — Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey), the first character we meet in the film — ties the narrative together, even though she herself feels developed only to the point that she serves as a useful unifying presence.

Where "Resistance" succeeds is in a tense chase scene through the forested French Alps, as Marceau and his band usher the kids toward Switzerland, and lasting safety. The chase plays out with every beat in its expected place, but for a few minutes there's a sense of urgency and suspense rather than a parade of clumsy character moments that mostly don't feel especially revelatory for the characters or particularly memorable as moments in and of themselves. (One notable exception: A cozy, intimate moment when Emma and fellow resistance fighter Mila [Vica Kerekes] giggle together over Mila's burgeoning romance with Sigmund. It's a moment that the actors carry wonderfully, and it serves as a prelude to a sequence of events that prove to be horrifying and traumatic.)

With the rise of a new wave of global anti-Semitism, this movie is hardly out of place. That alone makes it worth watching. But in less fraught times, in need of less pointed messaging, this film would be forgettable — partly because it's a scolding piece of work, but also because somehow the film fails to deliver the sort of gut-level power that stories of World War II and the Holocaust require, if we're to appreciate the terrors of that not-so-distant past, or find resonance in the film's best line, delivered by Ed Harris within the first few minutes: "Courage is no more than fear holding on a minute longer." If the torrent of self-consciously important messages that "Resistance" throws at you simply wash away, that single insight — so apt for the moment — should stick with you.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.