How Marcel Marceau Used His Mime Skills to Save Children’s Lives During the Holocaust

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

How Mar­cel Marceau Start­ed Mim­ing to Save Chil­dren from the Holo­caust

Mar­cel Marceau Mimes the Pro­gres­sion of Human Life, From Birth to Death, in 4 Min­utes

Helen Keller Writes a Let­ter to Nazi Stu­dents Before They Burn Her Book: “His­to­ry Has Taught You Noth­ing If You Think You Can Kill Ideas” (1933)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Sharon Ann Gibson says:

    …1997’𝑠 𝐿𝑖𝑓𝑒 𝑖𝑠 𝐵𝑒𝑎𝑢𝑡𝑖𝑓𝑢𝑙, 𝑖𝑛 𝑤ℎ𝑖𝑐ℎ [𝑅𝑜𝑏𝑒𝑟𝑡𝑜 𝐵𝑒𝑛𝑖𝑔𝑛𝑖] 𝑝𝑙𝑎𝑦𝑠 𝑎 𝑓𝑎𝑡ℎ𝑒𝑟 𝑖𝑛 𝑎 𝑐𝑜𝑛𝑐𝑒𝑛𝑡𝑟𝑎𝑡𝑖𝑜𝑛 𝑐𝑎𝑚𝑝 𝑤ℎ𝑜 𝑒𝑛𝑡𝑒𝑟𝑡𝑎𝑖𝑛𝑠 𝑐ℎ𝑖𝑙𝑑𝑟𝑒𝑛 𝑤𝑖𝑡ℎ 𝑐𝑜𝑚𝑖𝑐 𝑠𝑡𝑢𝑛𝑡𝑠 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝑎𝑛𝑡𝑖𝑐𝑠 𝑡𝑜 𝑑𝑖𝑠𝑡𝑟𝑎𝑐𝑡 𝑡ℎ𝑒𝑚 𝑓𝑟𝑜𝑚 𝑡ℎ𝑒 ℎ𝑜𝑟𝑟𝑜𝑟𝑠 𝑎𝑙𝑙 𝑎𝑟𝑜𝑢𝑛𝑑 𝑡ℎ𝑒𝑚.

    𝐿𝑖𝑓𝑒 𝑖𝑠 𝐵𝑒𝑎𝑢𝑡𝑖𝑓𝑢𝑙 is about a father’s use of humor to shield his son from the hor­rors of the con­cen­tra­tion camp in which they’re impris­oned. His sole focus is his son, Gio­sué, not a group of chil­dren.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.