Many make fun of mimes, but this film shows Marcel Marceau as a hero before he got famous. Venezuelan Writer/Director Jonathan Jakubowicz cast Jesse Eisenberg who steps up to the challenge playing the mime in this tense thriller as part of this powerful ensemble cast. Eisenberg studied mime for a year to reenact Marceau’s movements before production started.
Marceau courageously saved thousands of orphan Jewish children during World War II. Jakubowicz has relatives who survived the holocaust and he wanted to tell Marceau’s backstory. He uses General George Patton (Ed Harris) as a way to introduce the person you’re about to see which then goes into flashback.
Before he changed his name from Marcel Mangel, to Marceau, he was the son a Jewish kosher butcher who idolized Charlie Chaplin. You’ll see how Marcel only wanted to be a performer, but was drawn into being an unlikely hero of the French Resistance. When the Nazis kicked off their deadly rampage killing Jews on Kristallnacht, the orphans were eventually delivered to France for protection shortly before the German invasion. This is where Marcel was coerced into using his innate artistic talents to calm and entertain the children. He realized he could relax their fear and anxiety with laughter.
Eisenberg and Póesy demonstrate good chemistry as Emma and Marcel’s relationship grows. Emma becomes a vastly important part of Marcel’s life and goes through the most dramatic change in Jakubowicz’ interpretation. Poésy’s immense talent and range as an actress is highlighted in her character’s transformation as the Occupation becomes more brutal.
In reality, Marcel was only 15 and in the Boy Scouts in Strasbourg when he became involved. In actuality, Eisenberg is in his mid thirties, and it’s hard to imagine him as not being much older than the kids he’s saving. But, his performance is earnest and believable as a young man who learns to think outside of himself and commit to the cause.
Jakubowicz develops each of the main characters well. And he does not just use these Jewish children as a plot device, but goes deeper into the reasons for their trauma and fears. That even includes the training Marcel and the others gave the children to save their lives. The scene where the kids are shown how to climb trees to hide themselves proves what Marcel used in performing, “To make the invisible, visible, and the visible, invisible.” The way it is shot is effective and even more so later in the film in the group’s tense scene with the Nazis for survival. Scenes also depict how Marcel used his artistic talent to hand-make forgeries of papers and passports to keep them from being taken by the Nazis.
The one child who touches Marcel’s heart is Elsbeth, (Bella Ramsey, Game of Thrones, Judy) whose parents were killed in front of her on Kristallnacht. Ramsey is a compelling young actress. At first, Jakubowicz has her paralyzed and her face close to expressionless from all she’s been through. But as Marcel draws her out, she shows more emotion and will touch your heart too. Her subtle smiles are real and so are her tears.
All of these kids are traumatized and Marcel, his brother, Emma and Mila are their only protection. As the Nazis move into France, it’s up to them to find safe places. Jakowicz makes a point of showing how the children had to understand that to survive, they had to pretend they weren’t Jewish, going as far as enduring the trauma of having their religious curly side locks of hair cut off.
Warning: There are horrific scenes involving the cruelty of “The Butcher of Lyon,” Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer) who was the SS and Gestapo commander who delighted in torturing Jews and resistance members himself. You never see actually see it, but Director Jakubowicz takes you to the edge with Emma and Mila, which is powerful enough. And it continues in tense scenes with Emma, Marcel and the children on a train that are chilling. As soon as Schweighöfer appears on the screen as Barbie, you’ll recoil.
Jakubowicz wrote and directed a compelling story that keeps you riveted, You care about these characters and what will happen to them. Eisenberg handles his transformation as Marcel very well. Even though he had a mime double, his actions on camera without makeup are very graceful and believable. We understand Jakubowicz’ using Ed Harris General George Patton to introduce Marcel Marceau at the beginning and end of the film, but it lays flat. Eisenberg’s performance at the end is not as dynamic as we expected after all he went through. Even thought we thought the final scene should have resonated better, this almost forgotten story about the famous mime tells of a superhero whose actions spoke louder than words.
IFC Films 2 hours R See at home or on demand
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