During the Second World War in Vichy France, an aspiring mime artist uses his craft to save lives. 


The art of silence: Jesse Eisenberg 


In times of racial tension, films about the Second World War take on a bitter resonance. Hitler’s war on Europe was the personification of racist evil. Jonathan Jakubowicz's Resistance, whose title is self-explanatory, begins with an emotional punch. Tucked up in bed for the night, a girl asks her father, “why do they hate us?” Diplomatically, Elsbeth’s father, an Orthodox Jew (Édgar Ramírez), replies: “I don’t think they hate us. Hitler is just blaming us for the suffering of the working class. Some people just believe him.” “But why?” the girl persists. “It’s not a simple answer,” he responds. “But I can tell you this: the economy is getting better and some day they will stop focusing on who to blame.” This was 72 years ago and the economy is not looking much better. Nor is the irrational bigotry of many. But the scene doesn’t end there. As Elsbeth drifts off to sleep, she is jolted awake by the sound of loud bangs and shouting and, through the chink in her bedroom door, she sees her mother and father frog-marched out of their home by German soldiers. Following them down to the street, she then sees them summarily executed. The look of uncomprehending shock on the child’s face follows the film to its end…


However, this is not Elsbeth’s story – she is merely an onlooker on a chapter of history probably little known outside of France. Shipped across the German border, Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey) and a truck load of orphan children are deposited in Strasbourg, where they are met by the butcher’s son, Marcel (Jesse Eisenberg), who uses humour – and mime – to assuage their nerves. Marcel, a dreamer and a romantic, is an intriguing figure and his antics recall the buffoonery of Roberto Benigni’s Guido in the Oscar-winning Life is Beautiful. Here, there be horrors, too, and a series of scenes so skilfully executed by the film’s Venezuelan director that they are almost unbearable to watch. Jonathan Jakubowicz refrains from the bloodlust of many war films, but makes up for it with a raw emotional intensity. More fascinating still is that our protagonist, Marcel, turns out to be the internationally acclaimed mime artist Marcel Marceau, whose efforts on behalf of the French Jewish Resistance saved the lives of hundreds of children. Already adopting his stage persona of ‘Bip the Clown’, he is a French Oskar Schindler in whiteface. And when Klaus Barbie (an icy Matthias Schweighöfer), the ‘Butcher of Lyon’, enters the scene, the film takes on a true-life celebrity showdown.


Were it not for Jakubowicz's workmanlike efficiency as a storyteller, the film’s Anglo-centric stance could well have undermined its good intentions. But once one has got over Jesse Eisenberg’s Franco-Jewish delivery (better, one has to say, than Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s cod French accent as the high-wire artist Philippe Petit in The Walk), the movie settles into its stride. This is not an art film in the tradition of Son of Saul, or even Schindler’s List, but its narrative grip and set pieces make it an absorbing (and disturbing) experience. Another in the unbelievable-but-true stories that continue to surface in the cinema, Resistance honours a heroic figure who to many remains best known for having the only speaking part in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie. And whatever else one says about the film, we must recognise that this is a story that had to be told – and Jakubowicz has done his protagonist proud.




Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Clémence Poésy, Matthias Schweighöfer, Félix Moati, Géza Röhrig, Karl Markovics, Vica Kerekes, Bella Ramsey, Ed Harris, Édgar Ramírez, Alicia von Rittberg, Klára Issová, Felicity Montagu, Wolfgang Ceczor.


Dir Jonathan Jakubowicz, Pro Claudine Jakubowicz, Dan Maag, Thorsten Schumacher, Carlos García de Paredes, Patrick Zorer and Jonathan Jakubowicz, Screenplay Jonathan Jakubowicz, Ph M.I. Littin-Menz, Pro Des Tomas Voth, Ed Alexander Berner, Music Angelo Milli, Costumes Katharina Ost.


Bliss Media/Epicentral Studios/Ingenious Media/Neptune Features/Panteleon Films/Rocket Science/Vertical Media-Vertigo Releasing.

121 mins. UK/France/Germany/USA. Rel: 19 June 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 15.