A number one film in the US during its week of release, writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz ’s WWII thriller is probably the least-known recipient of that honour; in a case of the worst possible timing, there weren’t that many cinemas open in March 2020. This UK release on streaming services should at least help cement the reputation of Resistance as a classy history lesson, focusing on the French resistance to the Nazi forces and specifically on the rescue of orphaned Jewish children. It’s a worthy subject, handsomely filmed, and with a top-notch cast to attract an audience.
First seen playing a Charlie Chaplin as Hitler routine in a nightclub, Marcel Mangel (Jesse Eisenberg) is frowned on by his family for his lack of a serious profession. This is hardly a problem compared to what’s going on in Munich; Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey, Mildred Hubble from The Worst Witch reboot) sees her own family cut down, and faces an uncertain future, as do many kids in the same situation. Mangel ends up with a truckload of kids to hide, which he manages; he’s a gifted comic who quickly earns the trust of the children. But once the action moves to Lyon, there’s a specific threat in the form of Klaus Barbie (well embodied by Matthias Schweighofer), who guns down his victims in the empty swimming pool of his hotel, enjoying a drink and cigar as he savours their last moments of agony.
There’s an unwritten rule for film critics not to give away plot points in the last half of a film, or at least to disguise them. But it’s worth pointing out that, like 1978’s neglected Just A Gigolo, Resistance isn’t just any war movie, but eventually reveals itself as a concealed biopic of a famous figure. A bookend/framing story reveals the plot of Resistance being told by General George S Patton (Ed Harris), and in the final sequence we pinpoint that Mangel is, spoiler alert, the celebrated mime artist Marcel Marceau, who worked for Patton. Some reviews, and indeed some of the film’s publicity material (as above) lead with this fact, but it’s probably more effective for the audience to be given this information as a punch-line. The role provides great scope for the always watchable Eisenberg to give one of his trademark serio-comic performances, with physical clowning and awkwardness, and eventually graduating to real depth and gravitas once Mangel embraces his resistance responsibilities. He’s terrific here.
Resistance never gets overwhelmed by sentiment in the way Life is Beautiful did; it’s a tough history lesson that delivers an inspiring true story that doesn’t quite conform to traditional beats. Unless you’re the kind of person who thinks Finland is in Russia, then the horrors and heroism of WWII should be remembered by each generation afresh, and a film like Resistance is an ideal way to do it. With large-scale, tense set-pieces, lots of grand historical detail, and a tender regard for the next generation, Resistance’s old-school values may not be of much interest to hipster critics. Yet it’s a worthwhile primer on the harshest lessons of human history; with un-identified, badgeless secret police suddenly appearing on the streets of American cities (June 2020), maybe the timing of this movie is spot-on after all.