As writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz tells it, even in retrospect the filming of “Resistance” was unsettling — from its locales to the timeliness of the topic.
The film dramatizes the heroic actions of the Resistance and the Jewish French Boy Scouts as they led 10,000 Jewish orphans out of France, across the Swiss Alps, and into Switzerland, led by the iconic mime Marcel Marceau (Jesse Eisenberg) who used his talents to entertain and distract the children from the brutalizing chaos that flanked them on all sides. Originally scheduled to be released in theaters on Friday, March 27th, the movie will now be available on digital services and video on demand.
“We were shooting in Munich, Nuremberg and Bavaria,” Jakubowicz said. “At one point we were living a few blocks from Hitler’s apartment. At the same time we were witnessing a rise in German neo-Nazism. We were in a public swimming pool when we noticed a swimmer with a giant tattoo on his back, which read ‘Aryan.’ Everyone noticed it. And, no one — not one of the contemporary Germans — said anything. And then there was the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. It made the film that much more important, more so than ever.”
Jesse Eisenberg, best known for his roles in “The Squid and the Whale,” “Now You See Me” and “The Social Network,” said he felt equally drained, but does not believe that the current spike in anti-Semitism makes “Resistance” an important movie. In his view, the film addresses far bigger issues, specifically the importance of employing one’s talents for a greater good, marrying one’s art with social activism. He points to Marcel Marceau as a classic role model, whose story is all the more remarkable because it’s not widely known.
Both men, who speak to me over the phone from Los Angeles, identify as Jews, culturally and ethnically; both lost members of their families to the Holocaust. Still, there are differences. Eisenberg grew up in East Brunswick, N.J, and was largely shielded from conversations about the Holocaust. By contrast, Jakubowicz who was born in Caracas, Venezuela, heard about it all the time, from surviving grandmothers, an aunt, and from his parents whose lives were defined by it, not least because they were born in the late 40s to Holocaust survivors.
“I don’t even remember a time when I first heard about it, it was just part of who we were as a family, the survivors of genocide,” Jakubowicz said.
According to him, Venezuela was extremely open to Jews. In fact it was one of the few countries that opened its doors to Jewish refugees during the war and it was welcoming to Jews and foreigners for many decades until Hugo Chavez, a fervent anti-Zionist Socialist, came to power.
Jakubowicz recalls how he and other Jews were accused of being part of a Zionist conspiracy against Chavez. “But I don’t think those were ever the views of most Venezuelans,” he said. “If anything, his followers just hated the rich and wrongly assumed all Jews were rich.”
Jakubowicz’s first film “Sequestro Express” (2005), catapulted the young filmmaker into the limelight. Chavez was enraged at its portrayal of corruption throughout Venezuelan society, awash in income inequality. Jakubowicz had naively thought it would appeal to Chavez, an alleged champion of the poor. Instead Chavez viewed it as a Zionist effort to oust him.
“There was absolutely nothing about Jews or Israel in it, but the movie showed a homosexual soldier and Chavez was extremely homophobic, so he viewed that as an insult to the Armed forces,” said Jakubowicz. “The government opened a trial against me. They asked for six to ten years of jail for me for ‘portraying the authorities under a negative light.’ Then Chavez appeared in his State of the Union address wondering why I was still ‘roaming the streets in freedom.’ That was at 9am and at 12pm I was out of the country. If there’s something my family learned in WWII, it’s that when it looks like you may have to go, you have to go.”
According to Jakubowicz, “Resistance” was born of a fluke. He was familiar with Marceau as a mime, but knew nothing about his work for the Resistance or even that he was a Jew. He first learned about Marceau while surfing the website Open Culture. Floored by what he learned he felt compelled to research him further, poring through books and archives and ultimately interviewing Marceau’s 106-year-old cousin Georges Loinger (Geza Rohrig), the leader of the Jewish French Boy Scouts in the 30s and 40s.
It was amazing to him that the film had never been made about Marceau’s exploits, and speculates that the reason might have something to do with the mime’s modesty. Marceau didn’t think of himself as a hero and when he received the Wallenberg Medal (a humanitarian award in honor of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who rescued thousands of Jews) he said his heroism was small compared to the tragedy of the millions who had perished.
Much of the script was inspired by Georges’s recollections in addition to information Jakubowicz culled from a range of sources. The major writing challenge was telescoping events that spanned seven years (1938-1945) into a tightly knit narrative that married the elements of a historical epic—romance, danger, panoramic landscapes—with an intimate story. A degree of dramatic license was taken. Some characters are composites of real people. Settings and narrative threads have been slightly altered. Nonetheless, the fundamentals are authentic. For example: Klaus Barbie, “the butcher of Lyon” (Matthias Schweighöfer) really did play the piano to drown out the screams of captured resistance fighters who were being tortured on the premises.
Eisenberg was Jakubowicz’s first choice to play Marceau. The physical likeness was significant, though “the main reason I thought he was perfect for the role is that combination of edgy artistic arrogance, with a lot of heart,” he said. “At the beginning of the movie Marcel is completely focused and obsessed with his art. The last thing he wants is to become a war hero. And it’s fascinating to watch him change from a self-centered genius to the most generous man on earth. And Jesse is both, a creative genius and a great human being. He also is unable to be cheesy, and that was really important to me. I didn’t want the movie to be sentimental.”
Eisenberg says he was immediately drawn to the subject matter as a Jew and the grandson of Holocaust survivors, but also because Marceau was different from any character he had ever played. The chooses projects that bear little resemblance to each other. In fact, on Friday, March 27, in addition to starring in “Resistance,” he can also be seen in “Vivarium,” a darkly, comic dystopian two-hander (co-starring Imogene Poots) centering on the literal and existential dread experienced by an isolated couple entrapped in an ever-enclosing suburb.
Still, “Resistance” has special resonance for Eisenberg, who also dons the playwright’s hat from time to time. He has explored the Holocaust before, most notably in “The Revisionist,” an Off-Broadway drama that focused on the evolving relationship between a young self-absorbed writer (Eisenberg) and his Holocaust surviving cousin, Maria (Vanessa Redgrave) still living in Poland.
“My Polish cousin was one of the few survivors in my family,” Eisenberg recalled. “She’d come to America to visit us, so I knew about the Holocaust, but I didn’t know the history. My grandfather who came here in 1918 lost much of his family in the Holocaust, but he didn’t talk about it. It was a generation that didn’t talk about its feelings. I will teach my son about the Holocaust. I come from a generation that has a different perspective.”
Eisenberg joined “Resistance” knowing little about the period or most of the film’s characters, including Marceau. He recalls hearing him mentioned for the first time in a Woody Allen punch line that referenced listening to the records of Marcel Marceau. He had certainly never seen him perform. At the same time, Eisenberg grew up with him (sort of). His mother, who worked as a birthday clown, was a great fan of Marceau’s and in fact her makeup was inspired by his.
The most daunting task Eisenberg faced was mastering mime. There is no shortage of archival footage featuring Marceau, but clips of Marceau performing during the Resistance are not readily available. Eisenberg spent nine months studying mime with Lorin Eric Salm, a student of Marceau and an important mime in his own right. He served as the film’s choreographer, fashioning each of Marceau’s routines.
“They’re original and designed for the film, but fully capture Marceau’s themes and gestures,” said Eisenberg. “Marceau had an agility and grace which I don’t have. He was meticulous. He spent hours on tiny hand gestures. He had a particularly quirky way of separating his ring finger and pinky fingers. Other mimes would keep those fingers together. Little things like that would be very recognizable to those who had seen Marceau perform.”
Eisenberg makes the point that he’s doing an interpretation, not an impersonation, but that there is much in Marceau he can relate to, short of his bravery. Like Marceau, at least at the beginning of his journey, Eisenberg admits he frequently takes himself too seriously.
“I act, I write, and especially when I act in my own scripts I treat it all with a gravitas NASA would envy,” he said. “But I’m now trying to confront my own self-indulgence. I think I’ve changed in part thanks to my wife who is totally a social activist. When I go into schools as a guest artist, and I’m not a natural teacher, I now view it a little differently. I appreciate its importance. It is part of what I should be doing as an artist. Now that I’ve played Marceau I see that even more clearly.”
Eisenberg says that making the film changed him. On the day he returned to New York after completing “Resistance,” he found himself at the Jewish Community Center introducing an audience to Jeremy Workman’s “The World Before Your Feet,” a documentary about a young man who walked 9,000 miles throughout New York City. Eisenberg served as a producer on the film. Looking out at the largely aging Jewish moviegoers he felt an uncanny connection he had never experienced before, especially as he considered where they all would have been 80 years ago in France, Germany, Poland, and beyond.
And then there was the epiphany he had at Dachau. The film had been shooting in Munich and on one weekend, Eisenberg, his wife, Anna Stout, decided to take a trip to the concentration camp with their 18-month-old son. Understandably, the child had no grasp of where they were and happily bounded about the barracks.
“I was mortified,” said Eisenberg. “And then I thought about the theme of the movie: the best way to resist is to survive. My son laughing on the site where they tried to exterminate us was a strange victory.”
Simi Horwitz is an award winning feature writer/film reviewer who won a 2018 Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York for her Forward story, “Ruchie Freier: Hasidic Judge, American Trailblazer,” and most recently received first place prize from the Los Angeles Press Club for “Reviews-TV/Film, All Platforms,” given at the 61st Southern California Journalism Awards this past June.