Resistance is a new movie telling the story of Marcel Marceau before he became the world’s most famous mime. Starring Jesse Eisenberg as Marceau, it recounts the true tale of how this son of a Kosher butcher from Strasbourg became a key member of the French Resistance in the occupied south, smuggling hundreds of Jewish orphans over the border to Switzerland.
For all the cynicism heaped on mimes over the years, this film reveals that Marceau’s act – influenced by Chaplin – was in fact a response to the horrors he witnessed during the War: atrocities and darkness for which there were no words.
It’s a great story and a solidly entertaining film but does it get admitted – very French, this – into the pantheon of the best films about the Resistance? I’ve tried to select a wide range of filmic responses to this very complex issue of France’s behaviour during Nazi occupation, so there are necessarily some wonderful films left out, including: Burt Lancaster in The Train; Catherine Deneuve in Truffaut’s The Last Metro; Daniel Auteuil and Carole Bouquet in Lucie Aubrac; the football match drama of Escape to Victory; the post-Airplane parody of the Zucker brother’s Top Secret (with French agents called Deja Vu and Chocolate Mousse); and, yes, even Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards which has so many brilliant moments and a crazed finale.
Here, then, are my Top Five French Resistance movies – listen very carefully, I shall say them only once:
The Sorrow and The Pity (1969) – I first heard of this documentary when Woody Allen took Diane Keaton to see it at the start of Annie Hall. I later discovered it was a monumental four-hour epic by Marcel Ophuls that was banned for many years by French TV for the hornet’s nest of division it stirred up in revealing France’s true response to occupation, collaboration, resistance and the betrayal of the Jews.
Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) – Virginia McKenna stars as real life Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent Violette Szabo, sent into France to blow up a railway viaduct. Paul Schofield is the handsome Captain Fraser giving orders and Maurice Ronet commands the Rouen resistance. It’s a British classic of the genre, alongside Anna Neagle’s Odette, and reprised in a less successful 2001 iteration starring Cate Blanchett as Charlotte Gray.
The Army of Crime (L’Armee du Crime) (2009) – Director Robert Guediguian is better known for his naturalistic tales of working class life around Marseilles but this gripping thriller revealed the story of the Manouchian Group of resistance fighters, made up of many immigrants from Armenia, Italy and Spain, who were labelled terrorists by the Vichy government. It’s a fine film, its title echoing one of the original resistance movies, the sombre 1969 classic Army of Shadows by former resistance fighter, Jean-Pierre Melville. The phrase pops up again in the engaging, female-lead 2008 movie Les Femmes de l’Ombre (Female Agents), starring Sophie Marceau and Deborah Francois.
Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) – Director Louis Malle had already contributed the masterful 1974 film Lacombe Lucien, about a teenage boy who collaborates with the Gestapo having been rejected by the Resistance. But his more personal story – illustrating a more everyday form of resistance – came in this marvellous coming-of-age tale, about a Jewish child (under the pseudonym of Jean Bonnet) harboured in a Catholic boarding school by the stoic headmaster Pere Jean. It is he who, eventually betrayed to the Gestapo, utters the film’s titular final lines.
Casablanca (1942) – Rick’s Cafe Americain plays host to a varied clientele, including Vichy French and Gestapo officers, as well as petty crooks, refugees, black marketeers and resistance operatives. Humphrey Bogart is Rick, whose ex-lover Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks into the bar and, from then on, resistance is futile. She’s now with her husband, famed and handsome Czech resistance fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinreid). Soon, the French in the bar are drowning out the Germans with a rousing rendition of La Marseillaise. Dooley Wilson is Sam, playing the piano, although he was really a drummer and faked every note. It is one of the great, most irresistible films of all time, with one of the slickest screenplays, a film about war and love, where resistance is of the spirit and the heart, sacrificing the self for duty and honour, for cash, too and for a beautiful friendship.