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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2021

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JUNE 2021 Issue
Dance

Playing with the Truth: Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance and the Memory of Marcel Marceau

Marcel Marceau at the Erkel Theatre (Hungary), 1968. Photo: Eifer János.
Marcel Marceau at the Erkel Theatre (Hungary), 1968. Photo: Eifer János.

Marcel Marceau (1923–2007) is best known as the renowned mime and choreographer who, during a long career, created unforgettable characters such as Bip the Clown and charmed audiences both young and old around the world. Less well known are his activities saving Jewish children during the World War II Nazi occupation of France. It’s a story that deserves to be told, but more honestly and with more verve than director Jonathan Jakubowicz does in his tepid 2020 film Resistance. Marceau was still a teenager at the onset of World War II and he remained in France during the occupation partly in order to help fight the Nazis. Born Marcel Mangel—he was himself Jewish—Marceau chaperoned children to safety both abroad and in France on several occasions, risking his life in the process.

The film’s tag line might as well be “the Holocaust meets Disney meets a Lifetime TV special.” A degree of artistic license is to be expected in biographical dramas, but here the distortion does a disservice to the film and weakens the story. To begin, Marceau was in his teens when the war broke out, so to present him as being in his late 20s or 30s is a strange and unnecessary shift. One no doubt made partly in order to retrofit an invented wartime romance with hometown girl Emma (Clémence Poésy), whose acting here is almost as wooden as lead Jesse Eisenberg’s. In the few scenes where Eisenberg performs for the children, he seems wholly out of character, unable to enter the spirit of a mime or reproduce convincing mime-like gestures.

Marceau ferried across some 70 Jewish children to Switzerland in one instance and in another hid two girls at a house for social work in Sèvres, on the outskirts of Paris. This seems heroic enough, without having to embroider on the historical record. But in this filmic fantasy, it would appear that Marceau spent the entire war running an underground rescue operation, which is simply not true—his older brother Alain was in fact more active in this regard. Jakubowicz does worse than simply take liberties with the historical record, turning Marceau into a bizarre parody of an action hero. At one point the mime-in-training steals some kerosene from a random fire eater in the street and spits it out onto a Nazi, lighting him on fire with the help of a pocket lighter. Perhaps even more remarkably, toward the end of the film as Marceau shepherds a large group of children across the Swiss border near Annemasse, he has them all hide in a tree as Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer) lurks below. Once they are discovered, Barbie unloads a round of gunshots at them in the pitch dark of an Alpine forest and they fall seemingly hundreds of feet over a cliff to their deaths. “No one could ever survive that,” Barbie dramatically intones. Indeed—but somehow, they all do. That the Marceau family was apparently not consulted after having been shown a first script seems callous at best on Jakubowicz’s part, an exercise in poor cinematic craft.

The past year also brought us the story of another choreographer wrapped in the horrors of World War II: Serge Lifar. Mark Franko’s fascinating book The Fascist Turn in the Dance of Serge Lifar: Interwar French Ballet and the German Occupation (New York, Oxford University Press, 2020) could not diverge more from Jakubowicz’s Resistance in medium (book and film), intended audience (academic and popular), or the character of its subject (collaborating ballet master and resisting mime). As ballet master of the Paris Opera from 1929 to 1945, Lifar, in stark contrast to Marceau’s rescue efforts, took advantage of the German invasion to cozy up with the likes of Joseph Goebbels and become an unabashed collaborator with the Nazi regime. Apologists for Lifar argued that he was an apolitical artist who cared only about his work and had simply “ignored” the reality of the Nazis and their deportation of French Jews. From the beginning of Franko’s book, part of The Oxford Studies in Dance Theory, the author sets about methodically dispelling this notion. While describing the influential ballets that were set during the German occupation, like Istar (1941) and Suite en Blanc (1943), he also makes a delicate and brilliant theoretical argument that equates Lifar’s dance style and appropriation of Neoclassicism with fascism itself. The reader should however be well-versed in both dance and literary theory to follow some of the more abstract arguments.

While I wouldn’t argue that Marceau’s art is inextricably tied to his politics, it is clear that Marcel Marceau was above all concerned with the value of human life and bringing joy to those around him, qualities that he became known for as he incarnated famous characters during a long and illustrious career on stage. His story needs to be told after audiences worldwide were let down by Jakubowicz. But a glimmer of cinematic hope may be on the horizon, as Armenian filmmaker David Safarian (Hot Country, Cold Winter; Lost Paradise) met with Marceau several times before he passed away in 2007. They discussed various topics, including his wartime activities. A film is apparently in the making, part documentary, part artistic recreation. Safarian himself is an accomplished mime and actually mimes back and forth with Marceau at one point as they sit down for coffee. And Marceau appears impressed! From the outtakes that I saw, the film seems to possess a high degree of integrity. Hopefully it will bring home that fact that artists, like everyone else, have a choice: to aid and abet the forces of fascism or try instead to resist them even if it comes at the greatest of personal risks. Marceau was a man of both talent and integrity. He passed away in 2007 at the age of 84, but his unique legacy lives on.

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Below is an exclusive interview for the Brooklyn Rail conducted with Marcel Marceau’s daughter, Camille, who sets the record straight on her father’s activities during World War II, including his role in the Résistance. She is also clear in her criticism of the film Resistance and of the many fabrications that the producers and directors seemingly permitted themselves to present to the viewing public as they played with the historical record.

Marcel Marceau, 1946. Photo: Studio Harcourt.
Marcel Marceau, 1946. Photo: Studio Harcourt.

Christopher Atamian (Rail): Camille, to begin, could you share a bit about yourself? Are you drawn to the arts as your father was?

Camille Marceau: I am a visual artist and director. In fact, I just finished a poetic documentary on my trip to Auschwitz where I retrace my grandfather’s journey titled At the end of the dock: following in the footsteps of Charles Mangel. My mom is a playwright/director and both my sister and I entered the profession: Aurélia when she was seven years old and I myself at the age of 12. Aurélia is an actress and throughout our lifetimes we have performed on stage in productions mounted by our mother, Anne Sicco. In 2017, we performed in Fractals/zero time, a performance that our mother created as an homage to Marcel Marceau in order to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his death. My son Louis, who is a dancer, also performed with us in this piece.

Rail: What can you tell our readers about your family and about your father’s activities during World War II?

Marceau: My father Marcel Mangel (Marceau) lived in Strasbourg with his brother Simon—known as “Lieutenant Alain” during the Resistance—and their parents. His father, who was a kosher butcher, and his mother were both evacuated to Périgueux in Dordogne, as was the case with many Alsatians. In 1941, they went to live in Limoges, where Marcel entered the École nationale supérieure d’art de Limoges. There he trained in the theatrical arts with Jean Dorsannes, a noted former actor at the Gymnase de Paris.

It’s during this period, in 1942–43, that he started to make forged papers, IDs, and food rationing cards, most notably for the children who were living in the different châteaux run by the OSE (Oeuvre de Secours Aux Enfants).1

My father’s cousin Georges Loinger was imprisoned in Germany but escaped and went into hiding in France. He was put in charge of organizing the rescue of Jewish children. At one point he asked Marcel to take care of a group of children dressed as Boy Scouts and escort them across the Swiss border. They hid their false papers inside of sandwiches and left La Bourboule by train as if they were going on a class trip to Annemasse on the border. Then they hid in the woods and waited for someone who smuggled them over in a rowboat to the other side of the lake, where yet another person took them in hand. As the operations continued, the risks increased and some of the “conveyors” who were smuggling the children into Switzerland were caught and executed.

After that the Resistance continued between Moissac, Périgueux, and Limoges. His brother Alain was almost arrested by the Gestapo. Limoges became very dangerous and the two brothers, accompanied by their mother, returned to Périgueux.

On February 4, 1944 their father Charles was arrested and sent to Paris by convoy. He was then transferred to Dachau where he spent three weeks before being transported to Auschwitz in March 1944. He was then gassed in Birkenau along with all the Jews in his convoy.

Alain (Simon) joined the Maquis/Resistance in Haute-Vienne. Marcel made out his own false papers and henceforth took on the identity of “Marcel Marceau.” He was put in charge, by his cousin Georges, of two orphaned Jewish girls whom he brought to a house for social work in Sèvres so that they could be hidden among the other children. There he was greeted by the home’s director Yvonne “The Gull” Haguenauer and Elianne “Dragonfly” Cuyon. Marcel chose the name “Kangooroo” as a cover and became the theater instructor for both the Christian and Jewish children in the home, who were hidden with false names until the Liberation.

Aurélia, Camille, and Marcel Marceau, 2001. Photo: courtesy Camille Marceau.
Aurélia, Camille, and Marcel Marceau, 2001. Photo: courtesy Camille Marceau.

Rail: What can you tell me about your family’s roots?

Marceau: Marcel’s mother Chancia Werzberg arrived in Alsace at age eight with her brothers and sisters. They came from Romania near the Polish border, where they were wood merchants and had been victims of pogroms. His father Charles Mangel was born in 1895 into a Russian Polish family near the Czechoslovakian border. He also arrived quite young in Alsace because his father was widowed and did not get along at all with his mother-in-law. He left on foot to eventually reach Strasbourg.

Marcel’s parents were both Jewish: religious but not orthodox. Marcel received a basic, open religious education. He described his father as being extremely open and tolerant.

In spite of the fact that his father was strong enough to carry huge slabs of meat on his back, Marcel described Charles as being remarkably tolerant, soft spoken, and goodhearted. He would do anything for his children and provided them with a well-rounded education. He often took them to the cinema and the theater, for example. Charles was also a lover of opera and dreamt of being a baritone. Marcel’s mother read a lot and gave them a taste for literature.

Rail: Camille, what do you think about the recent American film Resistance, which purports to tell Marcel Marceau’s story during WWII?

Marceau: My family had nothing to do with this film, no input whatsoever. The director Jonathan Jakubowicz contacted us several years ago so that we could read the script, which we found completely absurd. It in no way tells my father’s story: nothing in the film corresponds to reality apart from the fact that my father did save children during World War II and that Patton did in fact make a speech about him.

Our grandfather Charles is depicted as an intolerant, aggressive man. Marcel is depicted as some type of wartime superhero, almost militaristic. There is a crazy scene with Klaus Barbie, and another where Marcel sets a Nazi on fire with a flame-throwing lighter. My sister Aurélia, my brother Baptiste, and I were all shocked.

We let Jakubowicz know how we felt in no uncertain terms and he took it very badly. He simply ignored us. Then he made the film without consulting us any further and without our approval!

Our father was brought up with humanistic values: spiritual and tolerant. From the earliest age, he described his own father in particular as being a wonderful man who was attentive toward his children and would talk to them about life and history and opened up an entire world of culture for them. For example, he always kept a seat open at his dinner table for students who did not have any money. And Marcel worked beautifully as a member of the Resistance with his brother Alain [Simon].

There’s something very simple and humble in my father’s life story, even if he did have to summon up the courage to resist and risk his life in the process. And then his father was captured and ended up alone in a gas chamber. Our family story deserved to be told more honestly and with more respect for those that it still affects very closely. There’s also something quite sad about telling the story of a man who saved children and then scorning or disregarding that man’s own children, wouldn’t you say?

Rail: How does Marceau’s art relate to his life—rescue efforts, values, outlook—if at all?

Marceau: My father practiced an art that he wanted to make universal through his choice of silence, an art that could touch all cultures and all peoples. As in Chaplin’s case, the character of Bip was a world citizen, fueled by a humanism that made one both laugh and cry. But my father also developed what he termed “the pantomimes of style” where he broached the great existential questions, as in his piece The Hands where the Hand of Evil fights the Hand of Good. And then there is the piece titled The Mask Maker where a man makes a “laughing mask” that he can’t take off again. At first the audience laughs along with him but at the end it begins to cry instead as it uncovers the man’s pain underneath the mask. You can read a lot of metaphors into this piece, but the one that seems especially relevant is that of the condition of the artist. My father always insisted that he was a citizen of the world, and when someone asked him if he believed in God, he would answer “No but when I am on stage, I have the feeling that God has entered inside of me.” The questions of evil and of destruction obsessed him for his entire life, as he was haunted by his father’s disappearance/death. That’s really the reason behind his refusal to be trapped by dogma and why he defended a universal and humanist art.

As for the representation in the film of Marcel Marceau’s art, I would rather hold my tongue. All those who saw him on stage or had him as a teacher know how poetic, human, and dramatically powerful his work was. A silent cry, the weight of one’s soul.

Interview translated from the French by Christopher Atamian.

  1. The Œuvre de secours aux enfants (Children’s Aid Society), abbreviated OSE, was a French Jewish humanitarian organization which assisted mainly Jewish refugee children during World War II, rescuing them from extermination by Nazi German forces. The OSE also operated after the war.

Contributor

Christopher Atamian

is a New York-based writer and filmmaker and former dance critic for The New York Press.

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2021

All Issues