New Netflix show ‘Transatlantic’ chronicles an effort to save artists and thinkers from Nazis


Cory Michael Smith as Varian Fry, Amit Rahav as Thomas Lovegrove and other cast members in Transatlantic. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

By PJ Grisar, The Forward

About 10 years ago, Anna Winger was walking with her father in Potsdamer Platz in Berlin when he noticed a street sign for Varian Fry Strasse. He asked her if she knew who Fry was.

She hadn’t then heard of Fry, an American journalist who led the Emergency Rescue Committee, which helped evacuate some 2,000 souls, many household names, from Vichy France.

Winger’s father, Harvard anthropologist Robert A. LeVine, knew two of the people who worked with Fry’s operation in Marseille, the economist Albert Hirschman, who also taught at Harvard, and activist Lisa Fittko, whom he met in Chicago protesting the Vietnam War. LeVine shared their stories and now, Winger, the Emmy-winning co-creator of Unorthodox, will debut Transatlantic, a fictionalized glimpse of their lives, April 7 on Netflix.

“I have been offered so many World War II projects,” Winger said in a Zoom call from Berlin. “I never wanted to write a concentration camp scene. I never wanted to write, you know, Nazis marching down Unter den Linden with swastikas everywhere. I didn’t want to have a swastika, period.”

But the ERC’s mission, which managed to save such century-defining luminaries as Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt and Surrealists Max Ernst and Andre Breton, resonated with her.

“Obviously, I’m an artist, I’m Jewish, I live in Berlin,” said Winger, who grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, among many World War II-era emigres from Europe. “I thought a lot about what it would be like for someone like me to just be exiled.”

That thought, coupled with the recent migration of over 1 million refugees into Germany, and the release of Julie Orringer’s novel about Fry, The Flight Portfolio, during the production of Unorthodox, made it a clear choice for Winger’s next project.

There aren’t many swastikas in Transatlantic. The bulk of the series plays out not in concentration camps, but at the well-appointed Hotel Splendide, where Fry was based, and in an expansive estate owned by Fry’s lover, Thomas (Unorthodox’s Amit Rahav, out of peyos as a firebrand Zionist). We see more Vichy police than their German counterparts, with an American diplomat (Corey Stoll) thwarting Fry’s efforts and eager to do business with the Nazis.

The seven-part miniseries is described as a “screwball melodrama,” and Winger was inspired by films of Ernst Lubitsch, a refugee himself, and the ultimate movie about partying until your exit visa arrives, Casablanca.

“Fifty percent of the people who worked in the crew were recent Jewish emigres from Germany,” Winger said of Casablanca. “Can you imagine what they were talking about during their breaks?”

The ensemble cast and crew of Transatlantic, which shot on location in Marseille, didn’t have long to wait for an easy historical parallel. Three days into shooting, when they filmed philosopher Walter Benjamin’s escape through the Pyrenees, Russia invaded Ukraine.

“It was surreal,” Winger said. “We were shooting refugees going over the mountains while we were looking at our phones on our breaks and seeing people lined up at the Ukraine and Poland border.”

Winger says that she prefers not to be “on the nose” when addressing current events — though she is a self-confessed news junkie. Using genre, and looking to actual history is her way into a kind of commentary.

As she developed the series with co-creator Daniel Hendler, she was fascinated by what drove Americans like Fry (Cory Michael Smith) and heiress Mary Jayne Gold (Gillian Jacobs) to risk so much to save others before America had even entered the war. 

Orringer’s novel, which Winger optioned for the series, gave a window into Fry’s psyche, but Winger was particularly attracted to Jewish Berliners Hirschman (Lucas Englander) and Fittko (Deleila Piasko), who stayed in France to help others like them. She was also drawn to the artists who made the long wait for sanctuary bearable through costume parties, affairs and games of Exquisite Corpse. (If you ever wanted to hear the Chagalls chatting in Yiddish, or Benjamin coaching a gendarme in how to pronounce tikkun olam, this is the show for you; Winger doesn’t expect everyone to pick up on these nerdy historical “chestnuts,” but hopes at least some are inspired to grab a copy of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.)

Much of the specifics of these characters’ relationships, and even some whole characters, are invented, and Winger refers to the series as a work of fiction. But the bustling cross-section on screen speaks to a larger truth about what life was in the Marseille of 1940. 

“So many things happening at once,” said Winger. “The Emergency Rescue Committee wasn’t operating alone. It was in the same space as the beginnings of the French Resistance, the beginnings of British intelligence, early MI-6.”

All of these moving parts factor into the story, and Winger also wanted to call attention to an oft-overlooked contribution to the Resistance. The fictional character of Paul Kandjo (Ralph Amoussou), a concierge at the Hotel Splendide, is one of many Black soldiers from the colonies who fought to liberate France. Hirschman joins Paul in mustering arms. Fittko gets to know him too — intimately, let’s say.

“To me the show is ultimately about the ways in which creativity and romance and sex and friendship and community are kind of the salve in the crisis,” said Winger, who cast her friend and Unorthodox co-creator Alexa Karolinski in her first acting role, as a young Hannah Arendt, for the miniseries. (It took some convincing.)

In a sense, Transatlantic is of a piece with Unorthodox: a story of leaving home and finding love and art in a new milieu.

“I think I’m always kind of telling the story of Exodus,” said Winger. “I think it’s nice that the show comes out on Passover. That’s not a mistake — that was kind of by design.”

This article was originally published on the Forward.