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‘Transatlantic’: A Tribute to U.S. Covert Operation to Help Refugees Flee Nazi-occupied France in 1940

‘Transatlantic’: A Tribute to U.S. Covert Operation to Help Refugees Flee Nazi-occupied France in 1940

  • I was drawn to and binge-watched Netflix’s seven-part television limited series based on a true story.

The series opens with black and white scenes of Marseille, France, while a radio voiceover does a news report about “the war in Europe.” The year is 1940. I was immediately drawn in and binge-watched the entire seven-episode series based on a true story. It was surreal to watch because of many factors. The year is 2023 and there is a war in Europe now which has been raging for over a year. This time America is involved with the allies in Europe. In March, I had to cancel my trip to the South of France and my hotel reservations in Marseilles because of the strikes in France. The plight of creative writers, Jewish thinkers and one of my favorite artists (Marc Chagall) being asked to leave their homes brought chills down my spine. 

“Transatlantic” the new Netflix drama illustrates the efforts of a handful of Good Samaritans who are involved in underground privately funded, scrappy efforts to help refugees escape Nazi-occupied France before they can be sent to concentration camps. In the last few years, with the rise of fascism in the world we viewed several films and series about the plight of ordinary law-abiding people in the early years of World War II. Like Taika Waititi’s Excellent film “Jojo Rabbit” when Hitler was invading Europe and the Americans considered themselves a neutral party. 

Like the covert operations portrayed in the series “World On Fire.”

The beautiful seaside town of Marseille is inundated by hundreds of alarmed (mostly) Jewish refugees from Paris. A group of them have set up camp on the beach. Some of them hide in the Hotel Splendide. While all the French people are not averse to them, some were Nazi sympathizers and the French Police is under German pressure to round them up and send them to prison or hand them over to the Gestapo. 

The main characters in “Transatlantic” are the American socialite Mary Jayne Gold of Chicago (Gillian Jacobs) who uses her trust money to help an American journalist: Varian Fry (Cory Michael Smith) to get about 200 refugees on the Nazi list to the United States. Things get heated up when U.S. consulate official Graham Patterson (Corey Stoll) gives her a letter from her industrialist father to “get out of France or he’ll cut her off.” But she is reluctant to leave Varaian at the Emergency Rescue Committee at a local hotel Splendide. Patterson plays a typical American diplomat (and views the rise of Germany as a business proposition for America). 

“The Flight Portfolio” by Julie Orringer, is itself based on the true story of the Emergency Rescue Committee.

Mary Jayne tries to help Lena (Henriette Confurius) and her brother Albert Hirschman (Lucas Englander) as a stowaway on a ship to New York but the French police stage a raid and round up all of the escaping refugees. After she hears about the raid, she pays the police chief to bail out the refugees but Mary Jayne’s frustration is mounting at the sloth-like pace of visa approvals by the U.S. government. 

On the other hand, the funds in her bank are drying up. But she sells her plane and pawns her jewelry and persists in her stance to help the oppressed. Another brave refugee, Lisa Fittko (Deleila Piasko) tries to get Lena over the treacherous Pyrenees pass into Spain, leaving Albert behind. Mary Jayne drives Albert to the pass in her Mercedes to catch up with his sister. A kiss to throw off French police at a checkpoint bonds them and perhaps the suggestive line that “ we have just consumed oysters”. 

The Committee’s headquarters, the Hotel Splendide, is raided by the police. Varian’s old flame, Thomas Lovegrove, offers his country mansion, the Villa Air-Bel, as the new base of operations. Lisa leads a group of refugees, including Walter Benjamin, through the mountains. Walter Benjamin famous for “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), and “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), and translation theory dies by suicide from a Morphine overdose but his written word survives. Vice-Consul Hiram Bingham informs Varian that anti-immigrant sentiment is growing in the U.S., and so they must get as many people out of Europe as quickly as possible. Thomas introduces Mary Jayne to the mysterious Margaux (Rafaela Nicolay) who will fund the escape.

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Romantic elements surface in the narrative, like the stolen kisses between Varian and his partner Thomas Lovegrove (Amit Rahav) and Mary Jane’s attraction to Albert but both are fraught with doom. After all “doom is in the air”. Another intriguing character is Ralph Amoussou as Paul Kandjo, the hotel concierge who helps the Emergency Rescue Committee. Philippe Frot (Grégory Montel ) is the French inspector with Interesting body language that changes while addressing the American counselor and the Gestapo.

“Transatlantic,” created by Anna Winger and Daniel Hendler, based on the novel “The Flight Portfolio” by Julie Orringer, is itself based on the true story of the Emergency Rescue Committee. It does justice to the plight of refugees and shines a light on the people who risked everything to help (2,000) Nazi refugees escape to America. The recreation of Hotel Splendide at No. 31 Boulevard d’Athènes (lovely rooftop vistas) and the Villa Air-Bel was at Château Mont Vallon on the outskirts of Vitroll and the French prison impart a realistic air of space. Peggy Guggenheim (Jodhi May) arrives in Marseilles after carting off several paintings from the Louvre and buys all of Max Ernst’s paintingsThis sets off a celebratory wave and there is a “very French” birthday party invoking a sense of nihilistic revelry but the danger is lurking under the dinner table so to speak. To see so many “greats” like Hannah ArendtWalter BenjaminMarc ChagallMarcel DuchampWalter Mehring in a plight highlights the fact that no one is safe and no place is a paradise forever! 

My heart cheered for Bingham when he stayed up overnight to make thousands of American visas because of the impending sense of danger which he could probably feel in his gut. A valid stamped visa to America was the most useful piece of paper in 1940 and in some ways it still is. I highly recommend “Transatlantic.” After Varian assists refugees onto the ship sailing to America, Mary Jayne gets on a plane to Poland with her dog. The last scene is a romantic throwback to the scene from another old-time classic “Casablanca” (1942).

With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM. 

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