Director interview'He was never comfortable with the notion of being a hero'

Now streaming, film shows mime Marceau saved kids from unspeakable Nazi horrors

‘Resistance,’ starring Jesse Eisenberg, available on-demand from March 27; based on Jewish-French clown’s real-life heroics shepherding kids for the underground during Holocaust

  • Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau in 'Resistance.' (Courtesy IFC Films)
    Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau in 'Resistance.' (Courtesy IFC Films)
  • Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau in 'Resistance.' (Courtesy IFC Films)
    Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau in 'Resistance.' (Courtesy IFC Films)
  • Marcel Marceau photographed in Paris on Feb. 12, 2003 (AP Photo/Laurent Emmanuel)
    Marcel Marceau photographed in Paris on Feb. 12, 2003 (AP Photo/Laurent Emmanuel)
  • A still from 'Resistance.' (Courtesy IFC Films)
    A still from 'Resistance.' (Courtesy IFC Films)
  • Ed Harris as George S. Patton in 'Resistance.' (Courtesy IFC Films)
    Ed Harris as George S. Patton in 'Resistance.' (Courtesy IFC Films)
  • Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau in 'Resistance.' (Courtesy IFC Films)
    Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau in 'Resistance.' (Courtesy IFC Films)

NEW YORK — When I mention Marcel Marceau, what do you think of? A guy in white face paint pretending to be a waiter? Or inside an invisible box? Or having the only speaking part in Mel Brooks’s “Silent Movie”? Well, apart from being the world’s most famous mime, it turns out the great French-Jewish performer was nothing short of a hero during World War II.

The new film “Resistance,” written by the Venezuelan-Jewish filmmaker Jonathan Jakubowicz, explores Marceau’s younger years, in which the budding artiste (with a bit of a chip on his shoulder at first) joined his brother and cousin in aiding Jewish orphans. It was there where he used his clowning skills for good, and eventually these talents were essential to calm children as he smuggled them through occupied France to Switzerland.

The movie, which will be available for on-demand streaming in North America on March 27, certainly amplifies the truth a bit for dramatic purposes. I doubt Marceau had quite as many face-to-face encounters with the “Butcher of Lyon,” Klaus Barbie. And there’s no way he used his “circus powers” to breathe a fireball on Gestapo guards, breaking people out of a police van. But the underlying story, especially the Switzerland crossings, are true.

I had the good fortune to speak with Jakubowicz some weeks ago — well before Covid-19 turned all our lives upside-down — and below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

In this August 22, 2016 file photo, director and screenwriter Jonathan Jakubowicz attends the US premiere of ‘Hands of Stone’ at the SVA Theatre in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, file)

I just learned that “Resistance” is going to play the inaugural Red Sea Film Festival in Saudi Arabia. This is significant because, I don’t have to tell you, stories about Jewish history and the Holocaust do not often get a lot of play in the Arab world.

I received a very moving message from the festival director, Saudi filmmaker Mahmoud Sabbagh. He spoke about using art to break historical barriers between cultures. I know how huge Holocaust denial is in some parts of the Arab world, so there is likely no region of the planet that needs the message of this movie more. I do not think any Holocaust movie has screened in the Arab world, certainly not Saudi Arabia.

Will you go to the premiere?

I am not sure yet.

(Nota bene: As they say in Yiddish, “Mann tracht, Gott lacht,” meaning “Man plans, God laughs.” The Red Sea Film Festival has since been canceled thanks to Covid-19.)

Full confession: Sure, I heard of Marcel Marceau, maybe even seen a clip or two, but I had no idea he was a Jewish member of the French Resistance.

Me too. That’s why I freaked out when I heard the story. I saw an article about it in Open Culture and it grabbed me. I’ve known WWII stories my whole life, both sides of my family are Holocaust survivors, and as such I never felt I could do a Holocaust film. It was too close. But something about Marcel Marceau’s involvement grabbed me. It’s about hope, and how he saved children. I started doing research and then I met Georges Loinger, the Resistance leader who led the Jewish Boy Scouts and was Marcel’s first cousin. We met in Paris when he was 106 years old. He gave me firsthand insight into how the operations happened.

Marcel Marceau photographed in Paris on Feb. 12, 2003 (AP Photo/Laurent Emmanuel)

To hear the story from a 106 year-old man … I became obsessed. And I was puzzled why no movie had been done on this subject before.

Georges, unfortunately, died at 108 while we were in post-production, so he was unable to see it. But we will show it to the family.

I suspect they’ll like it.

Well, Marcel never considered himself a hero, but he clearly was. He was awarded the Wallenberg Medal in 2001, and you can watch his speech on YouTube — it’s unbelievable. He’s talking about saving the lives of children, but says in the environment of all those horrors it is impossible to feel like a hero. It never crossed his mind. He was never comfortable with the notion of being a hero, but he risked his life. In his mind, it was what anyone else would have done. Of course, we know this is not always the case.

Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau in ‘Resistance.’ (Courtesy IFC Films)

Do you think Marcel Marceau downplayed this part of his biography?

He spoke about it more later in life. And he said that he realized that his “art of silence” was of the reflection of the silence kept by survivors of the camps. He said in many interviews that there was a parallel there.

I believe he tried to keep [his war heroism] hidden because he wanted the art to communicate a message of unity, but if you look at some of his choreography about soldiers, you will see an understanding of suffering. He was a mime without language, hoping to bring a message of peace. When I got that invitation from Saudi Arabia I did think, yes, this is a real Marcel Marceau thing happening now.

I saw your previous film, “Hands of Stone,” about boxer Roberto Durán, and, at least from a certain filmmaking point of view, these are both men who use movement as a form of expression. Either with mime or, you know, punching the snot out of someone. Did you find any similarities in shooting those sequences?

The more you film, the better you get. The more shortcuts you have. So, yes, we approached the fights in “Hands of Stone” as dance, that was my artistic approach. My composer pointed out patterns to me, even if they weren’t obvious to me.

Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau in ‘Resistance.’ (Courtesy IFC Films)

The casting to this film is key. Jesse Eisenberg is the perfect choice.

I wrote it with him in mind. His mother was a professional clown, believe it or not. So he grew up watching her paint her face to go to work. And he lost part of his family in the Holocaust. He also has a physical resemblance to Marcel, but, also, Jesse maintains a kind of artistic arrogance, and so does Marcel, at least in the beginning of the film.

He read the script quickly, but it took a little time to convince him to do it. It was a marvelous collaboration, though. He had many great ideas. He helped shape the film. He is a creative genius; it’s a privilege to work with someone like this.

I don’t think he realizes he’s a movie star. He’s an intellectual and reader, and a wonderful father. There were many children on the set, my children, others from the crew, and all of them were running around everywhere, which was very special because it was a movie about saving children during a war. Shooting a movie about the Shoah in Germany like that, it was special.

Oh, you didn’t shoot in France?

Germany for interiors and Czech Republic for exteriors. We looked to the actual locations in France, but they were too modernized. The sections that haven’t changed too much are completely packed with tourists. So I spoke to some of my French filmmaker friends and they said “go to Prague, that’s where we all go.”

Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau in ‘Resistance.’ (Courtesy IFC Films)

Being in Europe and shooting a film about anti-Semitism must have been interesting right now, considering the upswing in anti-Semitic incidents in that region.

It is undeniable. It is back. It’s part of what drove me to make the movie. But it also motivated us while we were shooting.

If you remember the scene under the bridge — not to spoil it, but you remember it is a very emotional scene, after a terrible incident — that was the day after the [October 27, 2018] Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh. And we were in Nuremberg. For Jesse and I to be in Nuremberg, shooting a movie about Nazism, a day after Jews were killed in a synagogue in the United States… I can’t even describe that day.

There was a feeling of “we are witnessing again,” but in a way it felt like we were doing our part.

Being in Germany, sadly, we experienced some interaction with neo-Nazis. There was a demonstration in Chemnitz while we were there. This town was about 90 minutes away from us. There was a Nazi emergency declared in Dresden while we were there.

Ed Harris as George S. Patton in ‘Resistance.’ (Courtesy IFC Films)

One day we were in a public pool and a neo-Nazi was there. He came in the pool and his entire back was tattooed with the word “Aryan.” And there were 100 Germans around and no one said anything. Everyone looks the other way, no one wants trouble.

You tell your German friends and they say, “Ah, well, that’s Germany. What can you do?”

French pantomime Marcel Marceau performs in Berlin in this Jan. 2, 1967 photo. (AP Photo/Edwin Reichert)

I mean, we were working with many wonderful Germans, liberal, open-minded, but at the same time there is an underlying thing happening there, especially in the east.

There was a shooting at a hookah bar recently, and of course there was what happened on Yom Kippur at the synagogue in Halle. I was shocked, but also not very shocked.

I think for many German people it is difficult to deal with. Their past is so horrible and they have made such an effort to overcome it. It is impossible for them to process that this is back.

I know you are Venezuelan, though you live in the USA now, is it a problem there now, too?

Well, I left Venezuela because Hugo Chavez did not like my first movie and the official state television channel didn’t just attack me, they attacked me with anti-Semitic remarks. They said it was part of a Zionist conspiracy against Chavez, and they threatened the Jewish community for “letting” me make the movie. The movie had nothing to do with Jews or Israel or anything, of course, or even Chavez. It was a movie about a kidnapping.

But it also showed a homosexual soldier, and Chavez was homophobic and he saw this as an offense against his armed forces. It was chilling, because Venezuela has historically been welcoming to Jews. When my family and others came there during the war, they all lived with freedom. But Chavez was the shift. My Holocaust-surviving grandmother was still alive at the time and it was very difficult for her to see this change. And it was hard for me, too, I was born and raised there, and I felt I had to leave because I was Jewish, much as my parents and grandparents left Europe for being Jewish.

A still from ‘Resistance.’ (Courtesy IFC Films)

Do you have hope for Venezuela to change back to how it was?

There is effort being made, but it is difficult. Nicolás Maduro has a grip on the military. It isn’t a situation that can be solved from the inside, and no one wants to go in. I have written a novel about this. And I keep in touch with people trying to free Venezuelan people.

It’s complicated, with foreign interests and oil. The country doesn’t belong to Venezuelans anymore. There was a scandal recently where Venezuela printed 11,000 passports to Syrians many of which had terrorism ties. It has become a hub for crime.

I read about your novel, “The Adventures of Juan Planchard,” which is basically required reading in Latin America right now. Any chance of making this into a film?

No, but maybe a series. It’s too extensive for one film. However, it it being adapted into a play by [Jewish-Venezuelan playwright] Moisés Kaufman, who won the National Medal of Arts and Humanities from [former US] president [Barack] Obama, the first Venezuelan to do so. I didn’t think about it when I was writing it, for adaption, but things just keep getting worse, so maybe I should. Especially now that other countries are taking an interest in Venezuela. For 22 years we were basically ignored, but now, since more are interested [laughs].

Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau in ‘Resistance.’ (Courtesy IFC Films)

I have seen so many movies about the Holocaust. Too many, frankly. But your film had a scene that smacked me across the face. Marcel is talking with other members of the French Resistance, who are not Jews. They are anti-Nazis, to be sure, but there was a disconnect on the nature of anti-Semitism. These were people who clearly on the side of the Jews but, eh, they just don’t get it. They maybe don’t even care if they get it.

Anti-Semitism is unique. It isn’t racism or homophobia. It has shapes. It’s on the left, right and center, and in different cultures. I felt it was important to hear the perspective of a French intellectual in the Resistance who has her views of where anti-Semitism comes from. She thinks it is a metaphorical origin, that Jews freeing themselves from slavery in Egypt has become a symbol of emancipation, and therefore a threat to dictators. It’s the type of thing that no Jew would think about!

I’m glad you liked that. That was actually one of the most difficult moments in the film to get right.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed