“I’m looking for noises that sound quiet,” says Maurizius Staerkle Drux (“The Böhms – Architecture of a Family”) The Swiss filmmaker grew up with a deaf father and in “L’Art du Silence” reflects part of his own life story. The pantomime Marcel Marceau appears in this – the director got to know the work of the world star early on and wanted to “look behind Bip’s mask”. That was the name of the clown from Alsace who has been touring all over the world for more than 40 years. With his L’Art du Silence, the art of silence, he has enchanted entire generations.
To the director’s credit, he slowly and carefully introduces the audience to the monstrosity of Bip’s life. In fact, Marcel Marceau’s career was partly based on a tragic background. Marceau’s father was deported towards the end of the war and killed in Auschwitz. During the Second World War he himself had to give up acting school for the time being and joined the French Resistance. With his cousin Georges Loinger, he smuggled Jewish children across the border into Switzerland several times. He taught them to literally keep still. The refugees learned to communicate with facial expressions and gestures, not to speak in dangerous situations. Pantomime ensured their survival.
The director met one of these children, now a woman, by chance in New York. Her statement that a pantomime saved her life gave him the idea to tell more about Marcel Marceau.
Maurizius Staerkle Drux knows from his own experience that pantomime is never silent. You can see and hear that particularly well in the film in the passages in which his father appears. Smacking, breathing, the fragility of his quiet voice – these are tender and strangely moving moments when the supposed silence is broken.
The director is not deaf, he can hear and started making music at an early age. And yet trained on his visual attention from an early age. Perhaps that is why he masters this synthesis between sound and image so masterfully. Maybe that’s why he manages to tell the sometimes overwhelmingly difficult story with ease. But he can certainly explain the art of pantomime, poetically, calmly, grippingly.
In “L’Art du Silence” Marceau’s family has its say. His last wife, Anne Sicco, who was long director of the École Internationale de Mimodrame de Paris Marcel Marceau, his two daughters Camille and Aurélia Marceau, both actresses and filmmakers, and his grandson Louis Chevalier, who is studying dance. And cousin Georges Loinger, who smuggled over 300 children across the borders.
On the other hand, Rob Mermin, a student of Marceau who, since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, has been using pantomime to convey perspectives beyond the disease. And finally Staerkle Drux’ father, a stage artist who found his form of expression in pantomime.
The staff is numerous, one might think, in this feature-length film about Marcel Marceau. This can also be interpreted as a mirror – his work has inspired so many artists and accompanied them in their careers.
“Silence is different for everyone,” says the director. “But she’s never silent.” What his protagonists have to say always carries weight. The excerpts in which a daughter wonders whether her father loved her differently than the children for whom he has performed throughout his life, or when the former wife explains: “He was someone else with a mask.”
That’s one of Staerkle Drux’s great strengths: he uses everything carefully, always at the right time and in the right place. No one ever speaks a word too many, no gesture is out of place, no noise, whether figurative or literal, disrupts the flow of the story. Which is downright surprising, so many topics as the director wanted to pack.
In addition to the conversations and stories, a lot of archive material can be seen. Marcel Marceau on stage. In black and white film. How he pantomimes «je vous aime». Like a tree grows. At a performance in front of children, in an interview, explaining his intentions. The white trousers, the red and white striped shirt, the black hat with the paper flower are always with me.
Because “L’Art du Silence” is of course also a homage to filmmaking in general, to the “big bang of cinema”, as the director puts it. Pantomimes were the first silent film actors. Marceau, one learns, could imitate Charlie Chaplin very well, for example. But perhaps the strongest message is this: when the visual plays such a large role as it does in pantomime, boundaries are dissolved. Staerkle Drux shows this using the example of Marcel Marceau: «After the war, he went to Germany first. Despite everything he’s been through.” Pantomime can make the horror bearable.
*This text by Nina Kobelt, Keystone-SDA, was realized with the help of the Gottlieb and Hans Vogt Foundation.