Writers & Company

The Art of Silence: How Marcel Marceau touched hearts and saved lives without words

The world-famous French mime is the subject of The Art of Silence, a new documentary by Swiss filmmaker Maurizius Staerkle Drux. The film is streaming as part of the 2022 Hot Docs film festival, with a screening on May 8.

The Art of Silence is streaming as part of the 2022 Hot Docs film festival until May 8

Maurizius Staerkle Drux is a Swiss filmmaker. (Submitted by Maurizius Staerkle Drux)

When most people picture a mime, they imagine a face of thick white makeup, a striped shirt under a white sailor suit — and a black stovepipe hat with a single red flower sprouting from the lid.     

It's the costume made famous by the French mime Marcel Marceau, whose performances inspired generations of artists, including Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Anthony Hopkins, and the great ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev. 

In a remarkable career that spanned five decades, Marceau often performed 300 shows per year, capturing audiences around the world through his mastery of expression and movement.

Marcel Marceau (Max Waldmann)

About his universal appeal he once said, "Laughing and crying belong to all humans."

Lesser known is Marceau's history as a young Jewish man involved in the French Resistance during the Second World War. Starting at just 18, he helped save the lives of hundreds of Jewish children by forging documents and moving them to safety in Switzerland. 

Marceau's life and legacy are the focus of a new documentary, The Art of Silence, having its international premiere at the 2022 Hot Docs film festival in Toronto. It's directed by Swiss filmmaker Maurizius Staerkle Drux, who became interested in Marceau — and the language of silence — through his father, a professional mime who is deaf. 

Drux spoke with Eleanor Wachtel from Zurich. 

The Art of Silence is playing at Hot Docs until Sunday May 8.   

Intimate connection

"I had never thought to put my father in this film. But I have to admit, it's kind of the root connection to everything. I grew up with a deaf father and when he was younger, being deaf was really a problem. He was not part of society. He had to hide himself, he felt kind of not involved.

"He was not allowed to speak with his hands and to express himself freely. In his school, you had to learn to speak with your voice and adapt to the normal society. So you can imagine what it meant for my father when he saw a pantomime on stage for the first time in his life. 

For my father, this was really important to discover mime and to discover the idea to express oneself through body language and signs.

"It meant a tremendous amount to him because he felt a kind of liberation. He could express freely. For my father, this was really important to discover mime and to discover the idea to express oneself through body language and signs. This is the way I grew up as well."

French mime Marcel Marceau's performances inspired generations of artists. (Les Films du Prieuré)

Saved by a mime

"I was traveling around with my last documentary, Concrete Love, and I was invited to a festival in New York and an informal dinner organized by the Swiss Ambassador. I met an older lady who was also living in New York and grew up in Switzerland.

"She told me that when she was really young a mime had saved her life. She began to tell me about Marcel Marceau, who helped her during the Second World War as a Jewish child to cross the border to Switzerland. 

She began to tell me about Marcel Marceau, who helped her during the Second World War as a Jewish child to cross the border to Switzerland.

"Immediately it gave me a completely different perspective of this personality, Marcel Marceau, who I thought was always this 'ha ha ha, funny guy,' who was always in a good mood and always laughing. I just couldn't imagine that he had a tragic background or something dramatic he experienced. So I started to research and try to find out more about his life, because it triggered me so strongly." 

Maurizius Staerkle Drux became interested in Marceau through his father Christoph Staerkle, a professional mime who is deaf. (Raphael Beinder)

The power of imagination

"I think that Marceau sometimes felt really lonely. And being lonely is something normal. I mean, we all feel this. And I think for him, it was something he really wanted to avoid. Being able to invent different characters, to invent Marcel Marceau, to invent Bip — I think he was able because he had such a rich imagination, he had the power to imagine things. 

"And this is the art of mime. You have to use the imagination to create things which are not there, and you have to use your imagination to see things. 

I was searching for people who are using mime in order to change their lives.

I discovered and met a mime named Rob Mermin, who learned from Marceau. When he got older, he discovered that he was suffering from Parkinson's. So mime gave him a new essential meaning. For me, it's about why he's doing mime. This is the same question I was always asking myself when I was thinking about my father. Why is my father doing mime?

"Rob was doing mime because it was a way to struggle against Parkinson's disease. This is kind of the mystery about being a mime: you have to observe people, you have to imagine a movement, and then you have to reproduce it. And this is what I was searching for in my project. I was searching for people who are using mime in order to change their lives." 

Maurizius Staerkle Drux's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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