Jewish Actor Jesse Eisenberg Reflects on Playing French Resistance Fighter, His Family’s Holocaust History
Jewish actor Jesse Eisenberg opened up recently about the family he lost in the Holocaust and his personal connection to his latest film role, in which he plays a central figure in the French resistance against the Nazis.
In the film “Resistance,” Eisenberg, 36, takes on the lead role of Marcel Marceau, a French mime artist who put his career on hold to rescue Jewish children from the Nazis during World War II. Born as Marcel Mangel, he began aiding the rescue efforts when he was 15, just a few years older than many of the children whom he saved. His own father was murdered at Auschwitz.
“My family comes from a part of Poland that is very close to where Marceau’s father came from in south-eastern Poland, so in some ways, it felt like I was playing somebody who, were I born with the same genetic makeup but 70 years earlier, I would be him,” said the actor in an interview with The Australian Jewish News.
Einseberg’s mother was a former professional clown, something he was able to reflect on when he played Marceau, he explained.
“The Social Network” actor also said he’s been practicing mime with his son. He recalled, “Before my child could speak I was rehearsing for this movie and performing mime for him. It transcended conversations that we would have had if he were older and could speak, and so there was something that was really unusually powerful and effective about using mime in dialogue with somebody who at the time couldn’t speak.”
Marceau initially used his talents as a mime for performance, but later realized he could also help lift the spirits of bereaved children. His process of finding a deeper meaning in his work resembled Eisenberg’s own path.
He told The Australian Jewish News, “I have tried to reconcile how the art that I am interested in can be of service to other people since I started acting and writing when I was 18 years old. I think a lot of artists struggle with this feeling — a lot of artists tend to be empathetic people and it’s sometimes why they were drawn to their work in the first place — and yet when you get wrapped up in the day to day business of it, you lose track of how your work can be of service to other people.”
He elaborated in an interview with Digital Spy, saying, “I started as a young man doing my writing and acting and my little plays. And then I met my wife, she kind of pulled me into a life of trying to use my artistry to benefit other people. And of course, I entered like Marcel — reluctantly — and then discovered that it doesn’t compromise your work. So for me, the story was incredibly personal…[It] spoke to me very specifically as somebody who is an artist, who’s constantly trying to reconcile the preciousness with which I treat my own artistry and helping others.”
“Resistance” filmed in Germany, and Eisenberg, along with his son, visited the site of the former Dachau concentration camp. At the site, the actor would meet with people affected by the war and spend time with the film’s German crew members who would tell family stories “some of which were really amazing about families that helped people survive the war — and some stories that they were ashamed to have in their family,” Eisenberg noted.
Discussing his own family’s connection to the Holocaust, Eisenberg said, “I became obsessed with my family’s history during the war when I was 19 years old. I would see my aunt every week — she died last year at 106 … She was born in Poland and then when she was about nine she came to America … I became really fascinated and it was interesting for me as an American teenager to have some connection to something that was so much more historically relevant than my own life. Doing this movie connected me that much more to that period of time.”
Watch the trailer for “Resistance” below: