In 1972, Jerry Lewis made the ill-considered decision to write, direct, and star in a film about a German clown in Auschwitz. The result was so awful that he never allowed its release, and it quickly acquired the reputation—along with disasters like George Lucas’ Star Wars Holiday Special—as one of the biggest mistakes in movie history. Somehow, this cautionary tale did not dissuade the bold Italian comedian Roberto Benigni from making a film with a somewhat similar premise, 1997’s Life is Beautiful, in which he plays a father in a concentration camp who entertains children with comic stunts and antics to distract them from the horrors all around them.
That film, by contrast, was a commercial and critical success and went on to win the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1998 and three Academy Awards the following year, a testament to Benigni’s sensitivity to his subject, in a screenplay partly based on the memoirs of Rubino Romeo Salmoni. It’s a wonder that another real-life story of a comic genius who used his talents not only to entertain children during WWII, but to save them from the Nazis has somehow never been made into a feature film—and especially surprising given the stature of the man in question: Marcel Marceau, the most famous mime in history.
As we learn in the Great Big Story video above, Marceau was 16 years old in 1940 when German soldiers marched into France. His “childhood ended all at once,” says Shawn Wen, author of a recent book about Marceau. His father died in Auschwitz and both Marceau and his brother “were involved in the war effort against the Nazis.” In one story, Marceau dressed a group of children from an orphanage as campers and walked them into Switzerland, entertaining them all the way, “to the point where they could pretend as if they were going on vacation rather than fleeing for their lives.”
In another story, Marceau somehow convinced a group of German soldiers to surrender to him. “It seems as if this natural knack for acting,” says Wen, “ended up becoming a part of his involvement in the war effort.” During the war, Marceau was “miming for his life,” and the lives of others. Mime has been the butt of many jokes over the years, but Wen sees in Marceau’s silent performances a means of bringing humanity together with an art that transcends language and nationality. Learn more about how Marceau began his mime career during the Nazi occupation at our previous post here.