Anna Winger makes no apologies for the creative liberties she takes with her new Netflix miniseries “Transatlantic” about Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee.
The series premiered on April 7 to mixed reviews — primarily in response to the choices Winger made in telling the real-life story of Fry, a young American journalist who saved 2,000 individuals wanted by the Nazis. Among them were 200 of Europe’s leading artists and intellectuals, including Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst.
“I made a series for Netflix. It’s not a documentary,” Winger told The Times of Israel in a recent interview.
She said that the story of the heroism of Fry and his small team of American ex-pats, European refugees, and sympathetic French in Vichy-controlled Marseille in 1940-1941 should be shared with a wide, mainstream audience. If that means blurring, embellishing, omitting, and eliding historical facts, so be it.
Without prior training or official support from the US State Department or the US consulate in Marseille, Fry and his team helped people on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list escape by either securing visas for them or smuggling them out over secret routes through the Pyrenees.
But Varian Fry experts worry that viewers will take things at face value and be left with the fictionalized picture portrayed on their screens.
Sheila Isenberg, author of “A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry” (to be published in French translation in May as “Varian Fry: L’homme qui sauva la vie de Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, André Breton et deux mille autres personnes”), told The Times of Israel that she was extremely disturbed by the Netflix series’ putting American heiress Mary Jayne Gold front and center as a crucial partner with Fry.
“Of the two women involved, Miriam Davenport was much more important to the operation than Mary Jayne. Mary Jayne did subsidize the operation, but she was mainly busy with her passionate affair with a guy known as Killer [underground figure Jacques Donor],” she said.
Isenberg was also upset to see that Frenchmen Danny Benedite and Jean Gemahling were completely omitted. They were Fry’s right-hand men, who took over the mission after Fry was expelled from France in September 1941.
The Times of Israel has seen a letter from a committee representing the family of Benedite’s sister, Elizabeth Benedite Davidson, to Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos complaining about this omission, as well as other inaccuracies. The letter states that the committee’s “‘bullshit detector’ has been going off with ear-piercing frequency.”
The most sensitive issue for Isenberg is Winger’s portrayal of Fry as having had a gay relationship while in Marseille. Isenberg is adamant that Fry, who was married twice, was not gay.
Winger said that the fact that Fry loved men is not debatable, and that it is evident from his archives held at Columbia University in New York.
“Whether he loved men is not really a question. I think some people don’t feel comfortable with it,” she said.
According to Israeli actor Amit Rahav, who plays Thomas Lovegrove, Fry’s gay lover in Marseille, his character is mainly based on French Resistance fighter Stephane Hessel. Hessel’s 2013 obituary in The Guardian euphemistically stated that “he spent two very intense months with Varian Fry” in Marseille in 1940.
Rahav’s character is a Jew from British Mandate Palestine who works for British intelligence and becomes part of the refugee group that lives at the Villa Bel-Air outside Marseille as they await visas. In “Transatlantic,” Lovegrove owns the villa, but historically, it was rented for the refugees by Danny Benedite and his wife. Rahav told The Times he was inspired by the relationship between his character and Fry.
“I find it a very interesting combination of a homosexual relationship and a career relationship at a time when queer people were not acknowledged or treated as human beings at all and they had to hide. At the same time they were serving such a great cause and seeing humanity in dark times,” he said.
Pierre Sauvage, a documentary filmmaker and founder of the Varian Fry Institute, shared an email he sent to Winger in August 2020 as she was writing “Transatlantic.”
“[Fry] would never have let an affair distract him from his mission, to which he was passionately committed. Any movie or miniseries that suggests otherwise will vandalize the memory of a great man — great in those particular circumstances,” Sauvage wrote.
His concern extends to the way that other characters are portrayed in the series.
“You cannot defame the dead legally. But there are moral issues here, too. Can you really take real people and portray them in a way that would make them turn over in their graves?” he said.
Sauvage worries not only about Holocaust denial but also about what he terms “Holocaust distortion.”
“If you trivialize real stories, and embroider them in a thousand different ways, then you make that whole period seem vulnerable to similar accounts. That is the risk,” he warned.
As for Winger, she told The Times of Israel that she hopes the series will send viewers to Google to learn more about how the ERC (and its Marseille office called the Centre Américain de Secours) operated.
The following is a conversation between The Times of Israel and Winger, in which she speaks about her process in making “Transatlantic” and defends her creative choices.
Times of Israel: Did you know Varian Fry’s story before starting this project?
Anna Winger: I knew the story for a long time. It was one among many stories of how people got out of Europe. Where I grew up there were so many people who were impacted by this immigration, specifically in academia by people who were intellectuals and artists. The people who got out thanks to Varian Fry directly impacted the world that I grew up in in the United States. My father knew a couple of the people who are involved in the ERC.
Who did he know and how did he meet them?
[Economist] Albert Hirschman was one of them. He was teaching at Harvard, where my father was a professor. And before that, my father was at the University of Chicago and he was involved in protesting the Vietnam War, and Lisa Fittko was in his protest group.
What prompted you to turn the story of Varian Fry and the ERC into a Netflix series?
I have lived in Berlin for 20 years, and of course, I have been asked to write many WWII projects. However, I have kind of steered clear of that. I felt somehow that I didn’t want to write about concentration camps or Nazis marching down Unter den Linden. But then in 2015 around 1 million Syrian refugees started arriving in Germany, and my family was involved in resettling some of them. I started to think about the cycle of history and started researching the story of Varian Fry and the ERC getting refugees out of Europe. My dad and I read a lot of things about it. He sort of got into it with me.
Was it easy or hard to find material on Fry and his mission?
You know, the interesting thing about this story is that because everybody who experienced it was a writer or an artist, there’s tons of stuff about it. People wrote short stories, plays, novels, memoirs, and biographies. There’s fiction and non-fiction material. Still, somehow it was like the greatest story never told.
Once you started researching, how did you personally relate to the story?
I’m a Jewish artist living in Berlin. So for me, the idea of being exiled, blacklisted, and banished is very relatable to me from many perspectives. People assume that I came to this as an American but to me, I think for me my way into it was much more through the people from Germany.
So how do you respond to the criticism that you took too many liberties with this history, that you fictionalized it too much?
It’s highly, highly fictionalized. It’s inspired by a novel that’s already highly fictionalized, so it’s many layers away from what exactly happened. It’s not a history lesson.
And what about the fact that you excluded some key real-life characters who were central to the rescue operation and played up some who were not?
So many people were involved in the story that I had to eliminate some. I just didn’t have enough space. I had to take out characters involved in the ERC. I also had to pick and choose among the refugees because there were so many famous ones involved in the story. You could do a whole biopic about each of them. It was too much material.
And regarding why we played up certain characters more than others, to be honest, it’s a good question and I wish I had a more conscious answer. One example is that there was a kind of narrowing down, a feeling that we couldn’t have two American women, so we concentrated on Mary Jayne Gold [instead of Miriam Davenport].
Of course, you filter history through the things that you like about it. There was a lot of research that I did that was about how you know, the agency that women had at that time, how British intelligence used women’s spies for the first time and women going into prisons to help POWs get out. We consolidated elements and gave Mary Jayne a lot of personal agency in the story, which is nice. I like to see women kind of coming into their own.
And what about characters that you entirely made up, like Israeli actor Amit Rahav’s character Thomas Lovegrove? He is a Jew from British Mandate Palestine who works for British intelligence trying to establish resistance cells.
I’m writing into the gray areas. I think that I liked the idea of a kind of early Zionist who was helping people get out to the Land of Israel and then got stuck in Europe and works for the British. I mean, I made that all up.
Alexa Karolinski, who cowrote and coproduced “Unorthodox” with you, plays Hannah Arendt. I didn’t know Alexa was an actor.
She’s not. She did it for me. She was great. I wanted a Jewish woman to play Hannah Arendt and I wanted someone German, and there weren’t a lot of options. The thing about Hannah Arendt is that everybody plays her old because they’ve watched the same movies of her after the Eichmann trial. But the thing is, she was only 34 at the time [of her rescue by the ERC], so I was looking for somebody who had the potential to be Hannah Arendt when she was older but was young. Alexa could portray that inner strength and bossy, special intelligence. You know, you just believe that she is going to do great things.
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