Resistance Review – A Frustratingly Insipid Piece

The horror of World War II and the wholesale destruction of the Jewish people, as well as other ethnic minorities such as the Romany people is a tale that film has explored many times to varying degrees of success. Perhaps the greatest mainstream success is Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List based on the true story of German industrialist Oskar Schindler who during the Nazi occupation in Poland attempted to save thousands of Jewish lives. Resistance presents a story that could in the right hands had similar gravitas to Spielberg’s film, but is sadly lacking despite having a fascinating premise and being based on the remarkable true story of the war time Resistance activities of world-famous mime artist and actor Marcel Marceau (Jesse Eisenberg).

Beginning in 1938 the film shows a Jewish family in Germany discussing the rise of fascism in the country. The audience is introduced to one of the strongest emotional linchpins in the piece Bella Ramsey’s Elsbeth. Elsbeth is one of the hundreds of Jewish orphans that Marceau with other members of his family including his brother Alain (Félix Moati) and cousin Georges (Géza Röhrig) as well as the sisters Emma (Clémence Poésy) and Mila (Vica Kerekes) will attempt to shelter and shepherd to safety away from the ethnic cleansing of the Nazis. As Elsbeth is put to bed by her parents she asks them why the Nazis hate the Jews; this allows for at least one of four pieces of exposition in the film trying to explain why the Jewish people are considered an outsider threat to dominant forces. After her father reassures her that things will be settled once employment is better and post war reparations paid, the Jewish people will once again be valued as workers. In a stroke that is somewhat typical of how heavy handed the film can be, Elsbeth’s family are at that moment dragged outside and shot by the Nazis. Elsbeth is the orphan that the audience will identify with throughout the film.

Using the technique of framing Marceau’s exploits via General Patton (Ed Harris) addressing his troops at the liberation of Paris, writer and director Jonathan Jakubowicz, who is Argentinian and of Polish Jewish background, attempts to encapsulate the period starting just pre-war in 1938 with Marceau acting in the local cabaret in the border town of Strasbourg in France doing Charlie Chaplin impersonations and finishes with Marceau’s first major public performance which is for the American soldiers.

Putting aside the fact that the real Marceau (born Marcel Mangel) was sixteen at the outbreak of the war, and not a man in his mid-thirties as Jesse Eisenberg is, the film’s major flaw seems to be that Eisenberg doesn’t ever fully dissolve enough into Marceau to be believable. At all times the audience is aware they are watching Eisenberg whose tics and tricks seems to be pale imitations of what one would imagine the young actor would have been like. Marcel’s story begins in a somewhat confusing manner as we are introduced to him being a selfish “artist” who only works at his family’s charcuterie to please his father. His younger brother Alain, who looks like he’s at least in his late twenties, spends most of his time philosophising about the spread of fascism and resents his brother for not doing more to stand up against the oncoming tide.

However, it takes only one conversation with his cousin Georges for him to become established in the movement to help the German and other refugee Jewish children via a scouting troop and later, when Strasbourg was evacuated and he moves with his family to Limoges, he quickly became part of the Organisation Juive de Combat-OJC – which worked with the French Resistance to move Jewish children to safety. Much of Marceau’s abrupt change of heart seems to come from the fact the children find him a charming presence, but also because his love interest Emma is heavily involved in the organisation.

A key cell is put together containing Marcel, his brother Alain, Emma and her sister Mila. Along with Georges they find funding to care for the orphans, feed them, train them in how to avoid Nazi detection and find as many safe spaces as possible for them to hide. If Jakubowicz had limited his vision to the acts of bravery that were involved with the young men and women doing just that much he would perhaps have made a successful film – however he extended himself to try to include so much more, including the introduction of The Butcher of Lyon, the infamous Nazi Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer).

It seems unnecessary ground to consistently reiterate that someone like Barbie was a monster. Yet the film lingers in giving him a role that is over the top in its violence and menace. Matthias Schweighöfer truly is chilling as Barbie, and the scenes he is in are incredibly tense, but for the most part they are also narratively unlikely. As much as he was known as the man who crushed the French Resistance in the south of France, how much of that would have been done with him personally brandishing razors and guns is questionable.

So much of the film is filler that tries to create a dramatic tension that should already be implicit in the story itself. The fact one of the world’s greatest mimes and actors was a part of a Jewish network of resistance is grist enough for a great story; but Jakubowicz also wants to throw in comedic scenes, fast paced action scenes, a doomed romance, an ineluctable and seemingly inescapable enemy and the personal and artistic growth of Marceau into the mix. Because Eisenberg doesn’t really carry the film via his performance, the narrative shortcomings are all to obvious. Powerful performances by Bella Ramsey and especially Clémence Poésy can’t compensate for the lack of subtlety in the writing and direction. The only moment that one can believe that Eisenberg is Marceau is in the final scene where he is in make-up for the first time and plays the tragedy of losing a loved one to the killing machine of war. Although Marceau did indeed perform for the troops and was awarded recognition from the Allies for his work in the Resistance, even that ultimate expression of Marceau’s journey seems somewhat contrived. The audience through the familiar white face of the mime sees Marceau but because Eisenberg has given the us little to connect with up until that point there is an emptiness to the performance.

Resistance is ultimately a frustratingly insipid piece. It has all the markers of a film that should be competent even if it isn’t great, but it doesn’t really even reach that mark. There are moments that work and are shocking, tense or sometimes surprisingly touching, but they are few and far between in what is a mostly ineffectual production that could have wrought something more poignant and unforgettable to the screen.

Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Clémence Poésy, Matthias Schweighöfer

Writer: Jonathan Jakubowicz

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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