Marcel Marceau: miming for his life
Marcel Marceau had a first-hand experience with the horror of the Nazis, having lost his father in Auschwitz, and even used the art of mime against it. The Jewish Marceau (née Mangel) got his first exposure to mime from a Charlie Chaplin film, which he saw at the age of five.
Later, when France entered the Second World War, he and his family moved around the country to flee the Nazis. “I was hidden by my cousin Georges Loinger who was a heroic Resistance fighter,” Marceau recounted in a 2001 speech. “He said, ‘Marcel must hide for a while. He will play an important part in the theater after the war.’ How did he know that? Because he knew that when I was a child I created a theater for children already.”
The skills Marceau cultivated performing for other children came in more than handy not just after the war but during it, as he performed for youngsters on the run from Hitler. Marceau started miming to keep children quiet as they were escaping, It had nothing to do with show business.
He was miming for his life. “Two months before the liberation of France, I entered a famous theater school and a master of mime, said to the young students, ‘Who wants a part?’ And I said I. And I mimed the killer. And the killer was a Nazi, but of course I didn’t say Nazi.”
Impressed with his impromptu embodiment of evil, the teacher asked his name. He said Marcel Marceau, his new surname inspired by a general who fought in the French Revolution, the “Marceau on the Rhine” of Victor Hugo’s poem. “That’s a beautiful name,” said the master. And thus the career of a mime legend truly began.
He felt that the art of mime would die with him. “It’s a transitory, ephemeral art, he explained, as it exists only in the moment.” As an old man, Marceau worked harder than ever, performing three hundred times a year, teaching four hours a day.
This film documents a 1965 performance of his most celebrated piece, Youth, Maturity, Old Age, and Death, given at 42, the exact midpoint of his life. In four abstract minutes, he progresses through the seven ages of man, relying on nuances of gait and posture to convey each stage.
He performed it countless times throughout his extraordinary career, from the timing of the smallest abdominal isolations to the angle of his head in the final tableau. Apart from Charles de Gaulle, Marceau was the most famous Frenchman of the post-war era; still cool and self-aware enough in 1976 to be the only player to speak a line in Mel Brooks’sSilent Movie.