Did you in your wildest dreams imagine Marcel Marceau (1923-2007) in his youth, working with the French Resistance during most of World War II and was made Grand Officier de la Légion d'Honneur (the highest French order of merit for military and civil merits, established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte and retained by all later French governments and régimes) and was awarded the National Order of Merit (Ordre national du Mérite - distinguished civil or military achievements) in France? It might surprise you to know he was also friends with Michael Jackson for nearly 20 years.
Starring Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau and Clémence Poésy as Emma, successful German actor Matthias Schweighöfer as SS and Gestapo functionary aka the Butcher of Lyon Klaus Barbie also has a strong role in the film, with Ed Harris in the cameo role of George S Patton.
In times of unimaginable suffering, Marcel Marceau was a beacon of hope who defied the Nazis in World War II. He directly helped hundreds of orphans escape to safety in Switzerland and indirectly saved thousands, yet never saw himself as a hero ('Director Jonathan Jakubowicz on The Project'). However, his story does not begin and end with the Resistance. It's also a story about the immense power of a dream and the power of art itself to bring a smile to faces even in the darkest of times.
Under the watchful eye of his father who wants him working at his butcher shop, all Marcel (born Marcel Mangel) wants is a life for the arts. He tries to make his dream come true on the small stages and to win the affections of politically active Emma. Wanting to please her, he agrees to a dangerous mission that changes the course of his life forever.
Telling this story was a matter very close to the writer and director of the film Jonathan Jakubowicz and was the result of years of research. As a descendant of holocaust survivors on both sides of his family, he was haunted by the stories of the war that had been part of his entire life. He spent years studying, trying to understand how 400 of his family members could be killed just for being Jewish? Never did he think he would make a WWII film that was too personal and emotional but felt a story of children being saved against impossible odds was something worth telling and celebrating. Marcel's cousin and leader of the resistance group Georges Loinger, who was still alive (passed away last year at 108), was the most direct source and a lot of the movie is based on his testimony.
This is a film that builds in momentum and intensity as it gallops towards the end. Eisenberg was chosen well for his role and works the perfect combination of edgy artistic arrogance with a lot of heart. He goes from being solely focussed on his art to becoming a war hero and you see him change from a self-centred artist to a full-time fantastic human being. Eisenberg is involved in an Australian upcoming JIFF event (10 June) and you can see him live in conversation about the film with Melbourne JIFF Artistic Director Eddie Tamir.
Another noteworthy character is Klaus Barbie, played by German actor Matthias Schweighöfer, in his first role as a cruel character and he does it well. Everything that makes Matthias a successful German movie star is what makes The Butcher of Lyon so scary. This is not your stereotypical Nazi that acts and talks like a James Bond villain, but an officer famous for being charming, even with those he tortured, while torturing them. Matthias captures the banality of evil, a man who thought himself a hero and a loving man and that's what makes it hit home; to realise that true evil is human.
Beyond that, this, of course, is about a man who finds his art by saving the lives of children and later goes on to become the best artist of all time in his discipline. There's not quite a story like that of Marcel and this film prompted me to YouTube a few clips of Bip the Clown in LeMime which made me realise how well-choreographed and executed Eisenberg's hand movements were. The Side Show is one of many that shows you the genius that is Marceau that still holds to date and had me laughing my head off. Such a joy, what an artist, what a hero!