Resistance director Jonathan Jakubowicz on the “unknown story” of Marcel Marceau

It’s an indelible stain on the 20th century, yet the Holocaust continues to reveal hitherto undiscovered stories, ones that inspire and that make us reflect, well over half a century later.  Despite a strong personal connections, writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz hadn’t planned to make a film about The Holocaust but, even though his new movie Resistance is set during World War II, for him it’s also about the early years of a world famous name.  Mime artist Marcel Marceau.

“I originally didn’t want to make a film set in the Holocaust because it’s too emotional for me: both sides of my family are Holocaust survivors so for me it was very personal,” he reflects.  “But this specific story about Marcel and the group of boy scouts who saved all those children didn’t feel like a story about extermination.  It felt like one about salvation, about civilians taking responsibility under impossible circumstances in order to sacrifice and put themselves at risk to save others.  And it’s also the story of an artist who finds his own voice by using his skills to help others and renounce what he thinks is important at the beginning – his own selfish accomplishments and his own art.  It really felt like something completely different, something that inspired me – these are the kinds of heroes that we need today when we’re being told that everything is awful and you have to care about your own interests.  The idea that a group of people would do exactly the opposite of what we’re being told to do and save lives felt like the sort of heroes that we need now and the kind of important story that I’d like to tell.”

While Jakubowicz was more than familiar with Marceau’s work as a mime artist, he was unaware that he as Jewish or that he’d saved so many lives while working with the Resistance in France during World War II.  The idea that a remarkable artist could arise during one of the worst periods of history inspired him to look deeper into the story and took him to one remaining person who witnessed Marceau’s early story.

I was launching my film Hands Of Stone at the Cannes Film Festival and because I was in France I thought I might be able to track down some of his relatives and the people associated with this story.  And I was able to find Georges Loinger who was Marcel’s cousin and head of the Jewish boy scouts in France during the War.  He was 106 years old and he told me a lot of what you see in the film.  His son and his niece helped me a lot as well and, after hearing all those stories, I felt there was really nothing else I could do but make this movie.  Unfortunately Georges passed away at 108 when we were in post-production so I was never able to show him the film, but his family have seen it and they’re very happy with it.  They feel it honours him and this group of a people in a way they always wanted.  He ended up saving close to 10,000 children, you know. It’s a story that could have been completely forgotten and we made sure that it wasn’t.”

While there’s plenty of material about Marcel Marceau’s career after World War II, Jakubowicz found it much harder to research his earlier years.  Georges Loinger provided much of the story from his memories, so the writer/director had to draw on other historical sources.  Although one of them proved to be unexpectedly close to home.

“Georges was the only person who was there and who was still alive when I was doing the research, but I also did a lot of research in the Museum of the Holocaust and the Museum Of The Resistance in Lyon. It was very important that I understood the Resistance and also Claus Barbie, so I met the Nazi hunters who caught Barbie in Bolivia after the war.

“In fact, I’ve been researching for this movie all my life without knowing it because I’ve always been interested in World War II because it’s the story of my family. Part of the story of the little girl in the movie is based on that of my aunt who survived the war in an orphanage.  I couldn’t find testimonies from the children that Marcel saved, so instead of coming up with a fictitious story, I decided to incorporate my aunt as background for this girl.  It was very special to show her the movie at the premiere and she was very proud.  She’s always been very involved in Holocaust remembrance so this whole subject is very dear to her, but she’s also been very involved in my education as a film maker so the pride of seeing the film, plus seeing her story, plus seeing her nephew honour the victims was pure joy.  It all came together.  We were in this beautiful theatre in Miami and one of the technicians there, who had worked there for 40 years, came to me and said “You know, Marcel Marceau performed here.”  And he showed me a poster announcing Marcel Marceau at the Olympia Theatre in Miami and it turned out he performed there for two weeks.  It was really unbelievable.”

Playing Marceau is Jesse Eisenberg, who Jakobuwicz had in mind for the role right from when he started writing the script.  Knowing that the actor had lost family during the War and discovering that his mother had been a children’s entertainer convinced him that Eisenberg would connect with the role and would rise to the challenge of having to learn mime for a pivotal scene at the end of the film.

“He was an essential creative force in the whole process, not just in terms of his character but also his interaction with the kids and having a true dynamic with them which was essential.  When he’s trying to entertain them, he really is entertaining them – the kids are reacting with laughter to what he’s doing – and that was very revealing for us.  We felt that was what made Marceau: it’s one thing to perform for praise and applause, but it’s another to perform for children whose parents have just been killed in order to help them laugh.  We think that’s probably what changed Marceau and made him so good at caring for his audience.

“Jesse worked for about eight months with a professional mime artist who studied with Marceau for a number of years and it was very tough because he just wasn’t learning mime, he was playing the best mime of all time.  When we got to Prague right before shooting, he was struggling with some of the movements and he was very nervous. I remember telling him he should forget about the specific moves and just enjoy it and try to entertain the kids.  We did the first session with the kids, he really started improvising and it completely liberated him and from then on it was smoother.  He was always nervous – he’s a perfectionist – and it was something he’d never done before and he’s not really known for action or dance roles, but he nailed it. It shows a Marcel at the beginning of his journey so he’s not the best mime of all time, just a talented guy who’s going to get there eventually.  What really connects with the audience is that he has that arrogance early on that’s mostly what we’ve known him for in other roles, but then he goes to a place that I personally haven’t seen before, showing a really benevolent, noble side.”

Jonathan Jakobuwicz was talking to Freda Cooper

Resistance is released on digital on Friday, 19 June 2020