War is no place for a clown.
Marcel Mangel knows this as well as anybody. He’s not much on guns or knives or munitions. And he’d be quite happy if those Nazis in Germany stayed put. For if they barged across the border and invaded Marcel’s’s hometown of Strasbourg, France,he would be all but worthless in its defense.
But war is coming regardless. The orphans are its first sign.
About 123 children come across the Franco-German border one afternoon in 1938—Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Marcel’s cousin, Georges, has promised to help take charge of them, keeping them safe in a nearby castle with the help of a few other counselors/babysitters. Georges would love for Marcel to be one of them.
Marcel tries to beg off at first: He’s writing a play for himself, he explains. He’s working hard in his father’s butcher shop. He doesn’t have time to be a playmate to a bunch of whiny kids. He doesn’t care about them. But Georges talks him into helping transport them, at any rate. And when there’s too many children to take to the castle in one bus, Marcel volunteers his father’s butcher truck.
“Make sure there’s no knives or meat in there,” Georges cautions. “The children are afraid.”
Soon, Marcel sees that a clown just might serve a purpose in war. These children—many of whom watched as the Nazis beat and kill their parents—could stand to laugh a little. They might appreciate someone who greets them with a smile, not a club.
Of course, war shares no such sympathy. The Nazis push into France, killing as they go. The children aren’t safe. No one is. But Marcel Mangel—the future famed mime Marcel Marceau—continues his struggle, fighting where he must, saving lives when he can. And as Klaus Barbie, known as the “Butcher of Lyon,” continues to try to exterminate the French resistance movement through large-scale murder and horrific torture, Marcel fights back in his own, unique way.
When Marcel meets a resistance leader, she comments on Marcel’s artistic ability—saying that the Jewish people don’t have a long artistic tradition like they do in writing or science. She suggests it’s because, in the Jewish faith, depicting God is forbidden—adding that that restriction is what makes Jews often the subject of discrimination.
“They [those who discriminate] get afraid because they can’t see who you pray to,” she says.
“No,” Marcel corrects. “They hate us because for centuries they were told that we killed Christ.”
But the Christians we see here are also part of the resistance: A pastor brings in a Jewish child and passes her off as a Christian (she sings “Ave Maria” in a Cathedral sanctuary, and a bevy of Jewish children sing the same song in an effort to conceal their heritage from Nazi soldiers). Another priest is apparently tortured (off camera), ultimately giving up the identity of some Jewish escapees.
We see Jewish prayers and ceremonies (including the blowing of the shofar horn in an early observance of Rosh Hashana), and watch as adults cut the long locks off the heads of sometimes weeping Jewish boys—again to conceal their heritage. We hear a lot of talk about being Jewish (and what it means in the context of the time) and see, of course, horrific acts of anti-Semitic violence. A cross hangs from the rearview mirror in a resistance-led vehicle. We see and hear Hitler speak on the “extinction of the Jewish race within Europe.”
Two Jewish members of the French resistance (a man and a woman) are in a relationship. Emma sneaks past the two as they kiss and canoodle in bed, both apparently (but not obviously) naked. She later quizzes the woman—her sister, Mila—as to how long the relationship’s been going on and how serious it is. Mila admits that she loves the fellow.
The movie introduces us to Klaus Barbie, one of the period’s most notorious war criminals, when he infiltrates a secret party of homosexual Nazis. (We don’t see any clear evidence of their sexual predilections, other than Barbie’s own accusations and the fact that one man is wearing makeup and dressing a bit effeminately.) Later, we see Barbie’s wife wearing a revealing bit of negligee, and when he comes into the room hepulls her closer to him and tries to kiss her. (She’s not in the mood.)
Two people kiss as a way to fool German authorities. Charles is appalled when he discovers his son performing on stage (a Charlie Chaplin impersonation) in what he calls a “whorehouse.” (Marcel says it’s a cabaret, which Charles insists is the same thing.) We see some women in the cabaret dressed provocatively and flirting with the male guests.
When a young orphan, Elsbeth, menstruates for the first time, Emma takes her aside and explains the process to the frightened girl. “It’s like a rehearsal for the day, many years from now, when you’re going to have a baby,” Emma says. Marcel admits that one of his outfits is “effeminate.” We see a woman, from the shoulders up, showering.
France’s Nazi occupiers make their Lyon headquarters in a swank hotel, fittingly called Hotel Terminus. The empty indoor pool becomes the site of some pretty horrific acts perpetrated by Barbie. We see him shoot several street performers because, apparently, they were near an act of resistance. “Either we have a country or we don’t,” he tells the corpses. Later, he brings four women to the pool and shoots two quickly as a prelude to the worst of the movie’s atrocities.
Barbie takes one of the women into another room and explains, in detail, what happens when someone is flayed alive (as instruments of torture hang on the walls in the background). He then announces that he’s going to let her survive—but force her to watch as he peels the skin off the other woman. We don’t see the act itself—only the terror immediately preceding it—but we know, from conversation afterward, that Barbie was as good as his word.
Barbie slams a chair on someone, then beats him viciously (and perhaps terminally) with one of the chair’s legs. His wife hears the pitiful cries of Barbie’s prisoners through hotel vents—realizing with horror that one is a priest. On a night of terror in Munich, Germany, in 1938, Nazis tear Jewish citizens out of their homes—beating and killing many of them. (One girl watches in abject horror as her own parents are beaten and killed in front of her.) Nazis shoot at people, and someone dies by one of their bullets.
A man blows fire at a Nazi soldier, setting him ablaze. (We see the man writhe on the ground, wreathed in fire.) A woman tries to commit suicide by jumping in front of a train. (She’s stopped before she can fall.) People jump (or are pushed) off a rather high ledge and careen down a snowy mountainside. Historical war footage is played at times. On a title card, we read that the Nazis killed 1.5 million children, the majority of them Jewish.
A couple of characters smoke. Barbie drinks both beer and brandy at a piano. Many revelers seem to be drinking and may be drunk. Marcel swallows a bit of stolen alcohol, only to strategically spit it out. Wine is served with dinner.
When Charles asks son Marcel why he paints, Marcel asks another question in return: Why do you go to the bathroom?
“My body gives me no choice,” Charles says. That, Marcel retorts, is the answer.
Resistance, for all its difficult content, is remarkably restrained for an R-rated film. We hear no bad language. The sexual content we see would barely raise an eyebrow in a PG-13 film. Even the film’s violence is rarely seen, in gory color, on screen.
That R rating, however, is deserved. You might not see every atrocity, but you feel it. What you don’t witness, you imagine. Resistance can try the viewer—even if what you’re actually viewing doesn’t look as terrible as it could. This is no story for children. And even many adults should approach this film with care.
And yet, it’s a story worth telling, too.
We’re told that Marcel Marceau was “directly responsible” for saving the lives of hundreds of children during World War II (by leading them, himself, across the Alps to Switzerland), and “indirectly responsible” for rescuing thousands more. It makes me want to know about the lives he saved: How many of them grew up to be successful doctors and scientists and artists? How many of them became loving mothers and fathers? How many children were born because of the courage of Marceau and others? How many grandchildren? How many moments of happiness did the courage and sacrifice of a handful of dedicated men and women make possible?
I’d never known about Marceau’s exploits, and I’d often thought of the art of miming as a little supercilious. Little did I know that that art, in a way, just might be the key to unlocking a little hope in the midst of despair, to surviving instead of dying.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.