One of the pleasures of Resistance lies in discovering the identity of its true subject, a lesser-known figure who provides a welcome new angle on WWII historical drama.
“What is the best way to resist?” Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz answers this timely question with a compelling if sometimes pedantic story of a small group of freedom fighters in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. Their efforts prove heroic, but the cost is terrible, and reminds us that part of what they bought with their sacrifice was the chance to warn us about the horrors of fascism.
Jesse Eisenberg plays young Jewish actor Marcel Mangel, whose flair for dramatic faces and pantomime is ridiculed by his no-nonsense father. The aftermath of the horrifying Kristallnacht massacre of Jewish families in Germany results in a caravan of orphans arriving in Strasbourg, France, where Marcel uses his charm and wit to enchant the children. Eisenberg shines in this role, drawing genuine grins and giggles from the traumatized kids with his goofy charades and clown act. It recalls the mugging performance of Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful but feels more natural, the theme of Art vs. Fascism rooted in Marcel’s own conflicts with his father.
The baddy is Klaus Barbie, the cretinous Gestapo chief who was known as the Butcher of Lyon. Matthias Schweighöfer nails the part with his oily hair, dead-eyed stare and penchant for standing too close to terrified people–including his own wife and baby–in his swastika-festooned leather duster. In an excruciatingly tense scene, Barbie interrogates an undercover Marcel, and unexpectedly asks for advice about raising his daughter: “How do you think I can help make sure she becomes interested in the arts?”
The absurdity of a Nazi worrying about the arts is almost laugh-out-loud funny, but Marcel knows you can’t laugh in a fascist’s face. Trying to play it cool, he suggests telling her the arts are for the weak so she’ll want to prove him wrong. Barbie’s look darkens at that, but he seems to recognize the truth of it. After all, it’s Marcel’s struggle with his own father, and no one better understands the power of art to defy authority. Earning a place in France’s Résistance for his bravery and rapport with children, Marcel finds a way to turn the power of his art against the fascist regime that is bent on wiping him and his kind from existence.
One of the pleasures of Resistance lies in discovering the identity of its true subject, a lesser-known figure who provides a welcome new angle on WWII historical drama. Despite an awkward framing device and exposition, the appeal of the resistance fighters is immense. In shadowy attics they huddle around radios and maps, hushed to the world, plotting escape and revenge. A scene of sisterly devotion is tear-jerkingly sweet, and the sudden intrusion of jack-booted thugs keeps the tears flowing for different reasons.
Marcel’s love interest, Emma (a radiant Clémence Poésy), sunken in grief, vows to hunt down and kill as many Nazis as she can. Marcel, accustomed to expressing himself wordlessly through his face and body language, struggles to come up with a response that feels true. He instinctively shrinks from violence because he knows that creation is more powerful than destruction. He finds his answer in appealing to a sense of empathy for those who have already lost their lives. Would they want revenge, he asks, or would they want us to help their orphans survive? It’s a powerful reminder that resistance is not about violence, it’s about hope.