Christian Duguay’s A Bag of Marbles treads a thin line. The movie tells a story of the Holocaust – based on an actual life – and while the film is certainly not a comedy, it has at times a comic tone, and any lightheartedness about the Holocaust attracts suspicion. The 1942 To Be or Not to Be, by Ernst Lubitsch is a comedy about the Nazi invasion of Poland, which plays funnier now than it did then. In 1997, Roberto Begnini’s Life Is Beautiful won five Oscars, but also took in plenty of criticism because many people thought Begnini was distorting and making light of those ghastly events.
A Bag of Marbles allows the typical lightness of a boy’s spirit to collide with the terror of his life. The story is told in retrospect by Joseph Joffo (Dorian Le Clech), who’s returned to Paris in August 1944, just after the city’s been liberated from the German occupation. So, you know he survived. In 1943, his father has a barbershop. Joseph has two brothers in their twenties, and a third, Maurice, maybe 14, just a couple of years older than himself. But when the Nazis start rounding up Jews, the family divides to flee Paris for the South of France, which was supposedly safer for Jews and others.
But that hope turns out to be a mirage. Joseph and Maurice make a harrowing trip out of the city, heading toward Nice. They take a train, then a bus. It’s like the Underground Railway for escaped slaves in this country. Connections fail; the boys meet betrayal and bad luck – and then good luck. They hitch a ride with a man who’s knowing and sympathetic; a priest claims they’re Catholic to get them out of serious trouble. They also get trapped; they learn to lie and acquire forged papers.
A Bag of Marbles has a good eye for mob behavior and hypocrisy. Life in Paris has been tolerable; the barbershop even has German soldiers for customers. But as soon as the Nazis start to deport Jews to the camps, former friends now join the scapegoating – they bully Joseph and, like the Nazis, blame Jews for the world’s troubles. Later, at the moment of liberation of a small town in the Alps, people who’d supported the occupation quietly, suddenly flip and attack the most obvious collaborators.
Joseph tells his story with the eyes of a kid. Much of the time, France looks bright and lovely, the mountains lush and thrilling. In Nice, the market overflows with fruit and vegetables. As children do, Joseph shifts quickly between playfulness and terror or despair. But over time, the look in his eye changes. Near the end, Joseph is clearly not the kid before life turned horrifying back in Paris. He’s learned to deal and bargain for things he and Maurice need; he knows how to slide through a dangerous world – when to hide, when to show himself.
But A Bag of Marbles never allows the delusion that Joseph survives just because he’s canny. No matter how savvy this kid gets, he survives because he’s lucky. People are lined up for train rides to the camps. Joseph hides in the hills and sees resistance fighters executed against a rock wall. In the mountain town, he works in a bookstore for a collaborator who cheers the round-ups of Jews, and who has an enthusiastic Nazi-loving son. Joseph lives with the family, who never suspect him.
So, A Bag of Marbles shows a story of survival that sees how in all the horror, there are unpredictable pockets of decency, generosity, momentary fun and good luck. It’s touching and lovely that perhaps the greatest act of generosity in the film comes from Joseph, and the sight of the actual Joseph and Maurice Joffo at the end of the film is especially satisfying.