In 1940, American journalist Varian Fry was sent to the southern French city of Marseilles to help Europeans who were fleeing Nazi terror. Working on behalf of the American Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), and with the help of American heiress Mary Jayne Gold, who provided financial as well logistical help, Fry and his team got more than 2,000 people out.
Among them were some of Europe's greatest artists and intellectuals, including the philosopher Hannah Arendt as well as artists Marc Chagall, Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp — refugees who helped spark an intellectual renaissance in America.
"It's kind of the greatest story never told," says Berlin-based American writer and producer Anna Winger, who has turned the tale of Fry and the ERC into a seven-part series "Transatlantic" for Netflix.
"Everybody who lived through it was a writer or an artist. They all wrote memoirs and plays and fiction and stories and novels. So there's actually a lot of material about it, once you start taking an interest."
Winger also wrote and produced the Emmy-winning series "Unorthodox" for Netflix — the story of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman who flees a closed Hassidic community in Brooklyn for freedom in Berlin — and the Amazon series "Deutschland '83/'86/'89" — a cold war thriller told from the perspective of an East German spy.
Winger first heard about Fry and the ERC from her father, who as a professor at Harvard had known famed economist Albert Hirschman. Played by Austrian newcomer Lucas Englander in the Netflix series, Hirschman was a German-Jewish refugee who stayed on in Marseilles to help others escape.
But Winger was first inspired to try and tell Fry's story when she experienced a refugee crisis firsthand in Berlin in 2015.
"My office used to be in the Tempelhof airport in Berlin and downstairs in the hangars was the first point of entry for the refugees who were coming mostly from Syria. And so we were all volunteering down there," she recalls. "My daughter, who at the time was like 12 or 13, said, 'Well, you know, these are just people like us, except for people like us used to have to leave Berlin. And now these people are coming here seeking refuge'."
In 2019, while Winger was making "Unorthodox," American novelist Julie Orringer published "The Flight Portfolio," a fictionalization of Fry and the ERC's exploits in Marseilles. "It seemed like kismet," says Winger. "So I optioned the book and that's how the whole thing came together."
Taking inspiration from 'Casablanca'
Instead of trying to do a docu-drama, Anna Winger and co-writer Daniel Hendler have fashioned "Transatlantic" as a fictionalized, romantic adventure, inspired by the Hollywood films of the time.
"I'd read a bit about the making of 'Casablanca,' which is like one of my favorite movies, and the fact that so many of the people working on that film were actually recent German emigres," says Winger. "They were suddenly, in real time, dealing with World War II and the news from home, all the trauma and tragedy and channeling it into humor and romance."
The conventions of 1940s melodramas and screwball comedies inform the pace and storytelling of "Transatlantic," which focuses not only on Fry, played by Cory Michael Smith, and the ERC, but also on an imagined romance between Hirschman (Lucas Englander) and Mary Jayne Gold (Gillian Jacobs), who in the Netflix series, has a side gig as a spy for British intelligence, helping spring some English soldiers from a Nazi prisoner of war camp.
Some of the series' strongest scenes are comedy set pieces. German actor Alexander Fehling gives a delightfully over-the-top performance as a flamboyantly camp Max Ernst. "Deutschland '83" star Jonas Nay has a cameo as German satirist Walter Mehring, and gives a show-stopping musical cabaret number.
"I think, in a certain way, this is truth of difficult times," says Lucas Englander. "There's a reason why people in Ukraine are keeping up their spirits so strongly at the moment, because they're not willing to say 'I'd give up.' They're willing to say, 'I will continue and, and I will stay, and you cannot take away my humor, because it is stronger than you'."
A 'refugee-positive' story
Alongside the rescue efforts, that included dramatic attempts to ferry refugees across the Pyrenees into Spain or hidden as stowaways on cargo ships bound for the Americas, the series explores the undercurrents of a broader revolution that was beginning to take shape.
"When France was still fighting the Nazis, all kinds of people from the French colonies in Central Africa, North Africa, and Asia were brought in, and after Paris fell, those people were released from service but they were still in the country," says Anna Winger. "It was the early days of the French Resistance and lot of Africans were part of that process. And because everything is connected, the French Resistance was also the beginning of the end of the colonial system. The whole process brought people together, who would never have otherwise had the chance to meet. That generated new ideas about freedom."
These different stories of freedom — Jewish refugees fleeing Europe to freedom from terror in the US, African revolutionaries fighting to liberate France from the Nazis and, eventually, Africa from France, even Mary Jane Gold finding personal freedom from her patriarchal American family among this rag-tag group of European artists — is the unifying force of "Transatlantic."
"This is a refugee-positive story, explicitly. It's not polemic, but it is," says Winger. "In this story, you have all the refugees who are trying to get to America for political freedom. But meanwhile, you have the Americans finding personal freedom in wartime Europe. Everyone is running towards freedom, and they find each other in this intersection."
"Transatlantic" premieres worldwide April 7 on Netflix.
Edited by: Brenda Haas