Marcel Marceau, the most famous mime in modern history, was a hero – but you'd never have heard it from him. Beloved across the world for his devotion to "the art of silence", as he called it, Marceau's influence was so far reaching that he directly inspired the dance of Michael Jackson, one of his biggest fans.
Before his art touched the lives of people worldwide, Marceau was a courageous member of the French Resistance against Nazi occupation during the Second World War, risking his life to shepherd more than 100 orphans to safety in Switzerland, something the artist rarely talked about publicly later in life.
Resistance, a new film directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz and starring Oscar-nominee Jesse Eisenberg, brings to life Marceau's heroism for the first time. While there is a rich library of films that cover the Holocaust, Resistance is a personal one for Eisenberg for a number of reasons. He tells The National that diving into this subject matter was an emotional marathon during every day of filming, one he couldn't switch off from when he went home of an evening.
“I lost a lot of family in the war in Poland, and my wife lost family in the war. Her family escaped to Russia, so they lost family that stayed behind … You try to have some link to that part of history because it feels like it’s shaped your culture so terribly.
“This movie, in a way, provided me with a link to my past and a link to my culture, and a link to my grandparents and cousins who all died so horribly. There’s no way to feel anything but horrified by it, but little things like doing a movie about it, in a way, gives me a link to it,” Eisenberg says.
The star wasn’t familiar with Marceau’s work before he began working on the project, but his mother was. In fact, she was a birthday party clown throughout his childhood, who modelled her make-up on the mime artist's, going to see him perform live multiple times. To play Marceau, Eisenberg had to work with mime coach Lorin Eric Salm, one of the late mime's students, who based the film’s choreography on Marceau’s actual routines.
“Like most things, it was really frustrating at first, and then really wonderful. I’m not flexible or agile, but over the course of months, it became something that I loved that I would do without thinking. I would unconsciously practice balancing my weight on one side or doing a certain kind of gesture with my hands. It became one of these wonderful things that I now incorporate into the things that I’ve learnt in my life that are only good for a three-month period of shooting a movie, but that you have affection for later. I have a baby and I incorporate it into the many things that I do to distract or entertain him. He likes it!” he says.
Eisenberg doesn’t know for sure why Marceau didn’t like talking about the lives he saved. “It seems to me that he didn’t want to take credit when it should have been shared. At a time like that, there’s so much heroism, there’s so much tragedy, and there’s so much evil. Maybe he felt that he was one of many, rather than singular,” he says.
It's easy to draw parallels to the way people are responding to Covid-19, with so many heroes on the front line who don't want to be treated individually as heroes. Perhaps, too, it was his initial resistance to the call to heroism that Marceau may have felt guilty about, the same way many do now – a human reaction that the mime artist eventually rose above.
“When the war began, he didn’t know how severe it would become, so he was trying to maintain normalcy, the same way that we are at the onset of this virus. He was reluctant to change his schedule, the same way we were reluctant to change our schedule because of a virus we don’t know the future of.”
'Resistance' releases digitally on Saturday, April 11 iTunes, Google Play, beIN On Demand and OSN Store, as well as all local platforms including du, Etisalat E-Vision, Ooredoo, Vodafone and OmanTel