A Bag of Marbles: You Still Can, by David Bax
Lately, I’ve been paying particularly rapt attention to movies about life under Nazi rule or occupation and how people reacted and survived. With the rise of white nationalists here in the United States, emboldened by a President with no qualms about courting them, I’ve taken to studying these true stories of the past, looking for clues or hints as to how to act, endure and overcome. In Christian Duguay’s impressive real life tale of survival, A Bag of Marbles, there are many lessons to be learned. One of the most important comes early on. After a Jewish barber in Paris stands up to a German soldier (in the days between the start of the occupation and the hammer coming down), someone remarks to him, “You spoke out because you still can.” May movies like this one encourage us to do the same today.
A Bag of Marbles’ chief protagonist, Jo (Dorian Le Clech), is the youngest son of that barber. Over the last years of the war, Jo’s family (including his three older brothers) are repeatedly separated and reunited as they try to evade Nazi capture. With his smarts, his sometimes heartbreaking emotional bravery and a bit of plain luck, Jo survives under numerous assumed identities across the south of France, sometimes with his family and sometimes on his own. It’s a coming of age amidst the most harrowing crucible imaginable.
Duguay plays by formula but he does so with wisdom and without laziness. Thus, even though we know Germany will be defeated and France returned to freedom, we are as overcome with joy as the characters are when it finally happens. The thoughtfulness to not treat history as a foregone conclusion is what makes A Bag of Marbles so effective. It also made me wonder how we, as Americans, will react when we overcome our own current national nightmare.
Duguay shrewdly saves some of his most disturbing footage to depict how the French (the good guys) treated collaborators after the war ended. It raises the question, how do you survive monsters without becoming a monster yourself?
A Bag of Marbles offers an answer. A Jew in hiding during World War II is someone who has to spend years without the simple privilege of being able to say who he is. As Duguay and the impressive Le Clech show us, however, Jo never let himself forget. Today, we’re just over three months in. There’s a lot of time left to suffer through but let’s not forget who we are.