Netflix’s ‘Transatlantic’ Tells of World War II Rescues

When Anna Winger, the co-creator of the new Netflix series “Transatlantic,” relocated to the vibrant French port city of Marseille last year, she found a dilapidated villa awaiting her. The “relic,” as she called it, was ideal for her purpose: the recreation of the Villa Air-Bel where, early in World War II, a dapper American named Varian Fry oversaw an extraordinary rescue operation for artists and writers, most of them Jews, hounded by the Nazis and the Vichy government of occupied France.

Arriving in Marseille in mid-August, 1940, determined to help those in danger after witnessing the abuse of Jews in Berlin in 1935, Fry had to battle not only the French authorities and Nazi ideology, but also his own risk-averse United States Consulate in Marseille.

Improvising at a time when the United States had not yet entered the war, Fry, a rebel in a suit, navigated a narrow path until his forced departure in late August 1941. He was determined to secure safe passage and overseas visas for the thousands of “foreign undesirables” who soon came knocking on his door.

Among the some 2,000 people he rescued were the artist Max Ernst, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt and the German novelist Heinrich Mann.

In his book “Assignment: Rescue,” written after the war, Fry wrote of Nazism that “I could not remain idle as long as I had any chance at all of saving even a few of its intended victims.”

For many years, Winger had been obsessed with the story of “this man alone doing something very brave,” she said in an interview. In 2018, she started working on the project, and in 2020, she optioned Julie Orringer’s novel “The Flight Portfolio,” which became the basis for the fictionalized events in the series.

Winger, who created the shows “Unorthodox” and “Deutschland 83,” lives in Berlin, where “as a Jew you think of these stories all the time,” she said. Her parents, both anthropologists, were Harvard professors and “a lot of people in the generation above them were refugees from Europe.” For her, “the impact of the emigration made possible by Fry is immeasurable in its influence on midcentury American thought.”

Filming on “Transatlantic” began in Marseille in early 2022; war broke out in Europe just a few days later. With millions of refugees eventually pouring out of Ukraine, the moral dilemmas of conflict that the series explores felt particularly pertinent. “For all of us, it was top of mind and seeped into our daily lives in Marseille,” Winger said. She would go home to a Berlin dealing with a vast influx of refugees.

The show captures not only the life-or-death seriousness of Fry’s mission to save refugees of another war, but also something of the louche, living-on-the-edge drama of a city that has always been a crossroads, and in 1940, unlike the northern half of France, was not directly occupied by German troops.

The Marseille that Fry and his motley team of driven young anti-Fascists encountered had something of the freewheeling intrigue captured in “Casablanca,” another story of people suspended by war in a foreign place, aching in limbo for love and visas. Inevitably, money and sex — the currency of clandestine escape — have their place in “Transatlantic.”

“We try to be true to the history but also make fun by working with it in a heightened way,” Winger said. The degree of fictionalization in the series has already caused controversy; Sheila Isenberg, the author of a book on Fry, called the show a “travesty.”

Much of this pushback has been focused on the decision to depict Fry having a gay relationship. In 2019, James D. Fry, his son, wrote a letter to The New York Times stating that “My father was indeed a closeted homosexual.” He was responding to a New York Times review by Cynthia Ozick of the Orringer novel that said of Fry, “there is no evidence of homosexuality,” contrary to the novel’s portrayal of him.

“We consider the letter from his son, James Fry, to The New York Times to be the last word on the subject,” Winger said via email.

In the show, Fry, played by Cory Michael Smith, works closely with Mary Jayne Gold (Gillian Jacobs), an American heiress who brings her money, energy and connections to the mission, as well as with Albert O. Hirschman (Lucas Englander), a German Jewish intellectual who would become a distinguished American economist.

Their activities meet the stern disapproval of the American consul general in Marseille, Hugh S. Fullerton (renamed Graham Patterson in the show), who is played by Corey Stoll. Fullerton, hewing to the then-neutral State Department line, wants to keep the United States out of the war. His vice consul, Hiram Bingham IV (Luke Thompson), thinks otherwise, however, and he quietly helps Fry with travel documents, some of them fraudulent.

The interactions between these characters, their relationships and ruses, their hopes and hypocrisies, form the narrative backbone to “Transatlantic.”

One night last spring, Winger shot scenes featuring Jacobs and Stoll in the recreated Villa Air-Bel, on the outskirts of the city. The consul, a loyal diplomat incapable of an act of rebellion against State Department policy, has a dalliance with the heiress, “that has a transactional nature to it, a question of getting people out,” Stoll said.

They embrace. They argue. He wants to spend the night with her. She asks him to leave. Over and over the actors played the scene until Winger was satisfied that the exchange between the pair achieved the right degree of sparring and sexual tension.

Fry and Gold may be on the same side, but they bicker a lot. To play the central character, “I spent a lot of time reading about Fry, going to Columbia University, where all his papers are,” Smith said in an interview in Marseille. “He was unassuming and demure, which I appreciate, yet he burned with a contrarian courage that led him to row against the tide.”

A literary journalist, enamored of European writers and artists, Fry was 32 when he arrived in Marseille. He had been sent to France from New York by the newly formed Emergency Rescue Committee (the forerunner of the International Rescue Committee), established by American and German intellectuals. With him he brought a list of people to rescue, including Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, André Breton and Alma Mahler, who would eventually escape across the Pyrenees carrying Symphony No. 10, the last work of her former husband, Gustav Mahler.

Fry thought he could get the job done quickly. But as Alan Riding wrote in his book “And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris,” Fry found himself in a “no man’s land of Gestapo spies, corrupt French police and refugees galore.”

Initially installed at the Hôtel Splendide, Fry quickly gathered a talented team of volunteers. Continuously hounded, detained for several days in late 1940, Fry faced off with Fullerton, the American consul, who repeatedly advised him to leave or face arrest, and in January 1941 refused to renew Fry’s passport unless he returned to the United States.

To the U.S. authorities at the time, Fry was a troublemaker, his effort to protect Jews and anti-Nazis a renegade operation undermining a craven official policy.

The events portrayed in the show are many-faceted, Smith said, but a core truth is inescapable: “There were civilian heroes before our government was ready to step in.”

Jacobs, who plays Gold, a sometime pilot of impetuous courage, said she found the part fascinating for its multiple dimensions. Gold makes mistakes, and her relationship with Fry is sometimes tense. He “views her as too impulsive, while she sometimes thinks he is too cautious,” Jacobs said, and yet, Gold’s moral core is clear: “She knows what she does is the right thing to do.”

Englander, the Austrian actor who plays Hirschman, another of Fry’s volunteers, said in an interview on set that filming the show made him reflect on his family’s own history.

“We never spoke of our Jewish past,” he said. “Grandpa had to run away — that was all we said in my family.” When Englander came to lines in which Hirschman speaks about his past before fleeing Germany, he said: “I felt my grandfather so strongly. I needed minutes of crying and coffee and cigarettes to recover. Now, I feel a compulsion to give something to life and help today’s refugees.”

Fry never ceased in his search to find ways out, until he was hounded out of the country after 389 days. He was told by the Vichy police, with the apparent backing of the American consul general, that he had “gone too far in protecting Jews and anti-Nazis,” Riding wrote in “And the Show Went On.”

Back in the United States, Fry wrote a groundbreaking article for The New Republic in 1942 titled “The Massacre of the Jews.” It had little effect. The slaughter continued, with Western powers doing their best to look away.

Writing and teaching, Fry lived out the rest of his life in relative anonymity, and died at the age of 59. It was only in 1967 that France honored him with a Légion d’Honneur, the country’s highest order of merit.

During production, Smith found himself thinking about Fry as an American hero defying his own government.

“There’s a real fight in America about exceptionalism, about what it means to be an exceptional nation,” he said. “Is it loving your country unyieldingly? Or is it taking a scalpel to it and looking at it honestly. This show is asking people to look realistically at our history.”

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