Would you trade your identity for a bag of marbles?
‘A Bag of Marbles’ adapts Joseph Joffo’s memoir and his escape from the Nazis
A Bag of Marbles
Directed by Christian Duguay
Adapted screenplay by Christian Duguay and Benoît Guichard
Based on the novel by Joseph Joffo
Starring Dorian Le Clech, Batyste Fleurial, Patrick Bruel, Elsa Zylberstein
Jewish brothers Joseph and Maurice and their family are on the run within a Nazi-occupied France. The film is based on Joseph Joffo’s powerful memoir about Joseph and Maurice’s separation from their family and their escape from the Nazis that hunt them down. Multiple times, the family is reunited, only to be forced to separate just after arriving; later, the brothers are captured by the Nazis, held at gunpoint, and slapped in the face for not admitting they are Jewish. “Are you Jewish?” The insistent answer: “No.”
Joseph and Maurice both go off on a journey. This is a cycle of escapades; the parents reveal that this was not the first time the family had to escape when we hear about the pogroms in Russia. The brothers’ journey is long, as it seems that over the next few years, the Nazis occupy more and more of France. Fewer people can be trusted. Yet we witness moments of kindness, the first from a lucky meeting with a priest who continues to help them, and an interesting one with a Jewish doctor working for the Nazis.
The narrative plays with irony of the need to deny one’s identity in order to save it, but the most powerful moment is its ending. Joseph ends up working for a bookstore owner who is an anti-Semite, but after France is freed, the townspeople revel in this freedom and begin to attack the bookstore owner and his family. Joseph, who was forced to deny his identity throughout the entire film, finally stands up and announces “I am Jewish!” to the terrified bookstore owner. Their eyes meet; he unknowingly had been protecting a Jewish boy the whole time — the one that he hated has now saved his life.
This is a story about trading one’s identity for survival. The symbolic gesture of trading your Jewish identity for survival comes early on as Joseph exchanges his yellow star for a bag of marbles that eventually is left behind. Each time the brothers leave a city marks a breaking of promises, a shred of dignity and innocence remains before them. What Joseph grips onto most tightly is the blue, beaten-up marble that is his. He clenches it tightly during his bout of meningitis. Survival is paramount, and, clenching onto the precious blue marble, Joseph holds out hope that there is a reason to keep living.
With less powerful or clever writing, the film could easily have felt too lengthy with the numerous long moments not directly involved with the Nazis, but this is a film about livelihoods, not just an escape. We move from a barber shop fashioning the appearance of others to a youth working facility where Joseph and Maurice fashion their identities as Algerian Catholics. They aren’t always running; sometimes the journey also involves selling cigarettes in Nice or playing in a field of grass.
The aesthetic language of the film reflects this: the lush background of France’s cities and greenery, coupled with the emotive orchestration, the French poeticism and meditative tone take over the film. Joseph, the precocious younger brother, lets us in on his thoughts of his developing philosophy on living and why he chooses to live. We watch him grow up from the “crybaby” (as his brother calls him) who lost his blue marble to one who refused to let go of his life. For, even in times of crisis, happiness can exist, and that is what they seek.