Courtesy of Netflix © 2023
From left: Hanno Koffler as Hans Fittko, Deleila Piasko as Lisa Fittko, Cory Michael Smith as Varian Fry, and Amit Rahav as Thomas Lovegrove in ‘Transatlantic’Courtesy of Netflix © 2023
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The Love Song of Varian Fry

In Netflix’s ‘Transatlantic,’ the American journalist who saved Hannah Arendt and Marc Chagall is reimagined as a virtuous victim

Phyllis Chesler
May 02, 2023
Courtesy of Netflix © 2023
From left: Hanno Koffler as Hans Fittko, Deleila Piasko as Lisa Fittko, Cory Michael Smith as Varian Fry, and Amit Rahav as Thomas Lovegrove in ‘Transatlantic’Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

Transatlantic, which debuted on Netflix earlier this year, is a highly fictionalized and long overdue mass-market dramatization of a remarkable true story: The heroic and unbelievably successful effort by American journalist Varian Fry to rescue more than 2,000 intellectuals, artists, and thinkers—many but not all of whom were Jews—from the Nazis and Vichy police. This all took place in Marseille between 1940 and 1941, where Fry was posted as a representative of the Emergency Rescue Committee.

I appreciate that the creators of this series have resurrected an important—albeit forgotten—episode in history and given it new life. However, the series is one more example of education via entertainment, perhaps for those who no longer prefer books. Unfortunately, providing contemporary and politically correct, revisionist characterizations of historical figures is what gets such projects funded and attracts an audience that sees nothing questionable about fictionalizing history.

Varian Fry, a twice heterosexually married man and father of three, is presented by Netflix as a closeted and tortured gay man. The real Fry was a Protestant who risked his life to save Jews and others due to his ethical revulsion against the Nazi regime; the series adds, as a fictional motivation, his affection for a Jewish male lover who grew up on a kibbutz in Palestine and who has been working with the British underground in order to get Jews into the Holy Land.

The series’ themes include Nazism, craven collaboration, resistance, betrayal, American-era antisemitism, and the rescue of endangered European geniuses in France. In a superficial way, the film does depict the stories of those whom Fry assisted in their escape, including Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Lion Feuchtwanger, Wanda Landowska, Claude Levi-Strauss, Jacques Lipschitz, Alma Mahler, Walter Gropius, Heinrich and Golo Mann (Thomas Mann’s brother and son, respectively), and Franz Werfel—among others.

This rescue mission is romance enough for me.

But we unfortunately live in an age ruled by identity politics. And still, I must ask: Is Fry’s sexuality or the identity of his lovers anywhere near as important as what he accomplished? The thousands of European geniuses he saved came to America, changing both American and world culture.

People want their protagonists to resemble the latest victim-hero, especially if they are members of a demonized or marginalized group. But really, who most deserves to claim Fry as one of their own? The increasingly vilified white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, a group to which Fry surely belonged? What about Scotland? In his archives at Columbia, there is a letter written by Fry to Albert Otto Hirschman, in which Fry states, “but there was a good deal of idealism—less and less as time went on—a certain amount of naiveté, but above all, a common orneriness, which I inherit from my Scotch ancestors. It was a tough struggle, [in Marseille] and it took all of my Scotch character to stick it out.”

Does Fry belong to Harvard—his alma mater—or is he one of America’s best and least known anti-communist/anti-Nazi dissidents? A man who also dared expose how America collaborated in the Holocaust?

In Transatlantic, what is meant to rivet us to the screen (and it does) are two fictionalized love affairs, one between Fry and his male lover, the aptly named Thomas Lovegrove (Amit Rahav), the other between the American-born heiress Mary Jayne Gold (a real woman, and a righteous gentile) and Hirschman (a real Berlin-born Jew). In the film, Hirschman deserts Gold for the greater good of fighting fascism. After his work with the Emergency Rescue Committee, the real-life Hirschman did join the U.S. Army, but there is no evidence he ever had an affair with Gold.

The real Fry was likely gay—or at least bisexual. At Harvard, he was classmates with Lincoln Kirstein, who went on to co-found the New York City Ballet. According to Dara Horn in the brilliant People Love Dead Jews: Reports From a Haunted Present, Kirstein insisted in his diaries that “Fry was gay ... but the pieties of the era prevented anyone from admitting it.” According to Fry’s son Jim, Fry was also mentally ill. I have known gay men and mentally ill men but few of them have done what Fry did.

Although Nazi ideology was obsessively homophobic and targeted homosexuals as degenerates, some Nazis themselves were homosexuals. According to Geoffrey J. Gilles in the Journal of the History of Sexuality, the Nazis, despite their official homophobia, urged strong male bonding, which often led to “homoerotic” ties among Nazis and to forbidden homosexual acts, including among the SS, Hitler’s personal bodyguard, and the Nazi police.

In other words, we cannot gain insight into a person’s character based on the single variable of their sexual orientation. Like all other human beings, homosexuals are both compassionate and cruel; they may be entirely apolitical bohemians, off-the-wall radicals, amazing anarchists, stark raving conservatives, or even homophobes themselves. J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn both come to mind.

Here is what Pierre Sauvage, the world’s leading expert on Fry, has to say on the subject of Fry’s sexual identity. Fry was a “natty dresser, he had a passion for Latin and Greek and bird watching. He could be stuffy and pedantic, but he also loved naughty limericks and had an antic, screwball sense of humor.” Sauvage also comments on Andy Marino, who in his book A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry “speculated that aspects of Fry’s sexual life and history may have been a major factor in creating in him the sense of being an outsider.” Sauvage writes: “Whatever Fry’s sexual nature may have been—and it is hard to decide to what extent speculation about such matters is relevant—the stress that Marino puts on Fry not being an ‘organization man’ seems appropriate.”

In my less-than-humble opinion, I would have loved to see the film draw upon Horn’s chapter about Fry’s work in People Love Dead Jews. Horn views Fry as perhaps bipolar and “a little unhinged.” However, in terms of Fry’s hidden homosexuality, she writes:

We are dealing with two currently pious claims about an important figure’s homosexuality; either it was irrelevant to his heroism and that considering it relevant makes one a bigot or, that it was the fundamental influence in creating his sense of empathy for others. Neither of these is really true. Instead, Fry’s sexuality seems like yet another aspect of his personality—like his intense intelligence, and also like his mental illness—that made it impossible for him to lead a conventional life.

In 1935, Fry was in Berlin and witnessed an anti-Jewish pogrom. Jewish civilians were set upon, dragged to the ground, beaten, spit upon, kicked, stabbed, murdered. The crowds cheered. According to Sauvage, in Varian Fry in Marseille, “[i]n a cafe on the Kurfürstendamm, in the heart of the city, two Nazi youth had approached a man who was quietly having a beer and who looked as if he might be Jewish. As the man put out his hand to lift the mug, he had suddenly found that hand nailed to the table by a dagger joyfully and triumphantly wielded by one of the thugs.”

Gold believed that “the image of the hand pinned to the table had been a factor in Fry’s volunteering to go to France.”

Fry attempted repeatedly to “sensitize American public opinion to the refugee crisis in Europe.” In 1942, he wrote a cover story for The New Republic, titled “The Massacre of the Jews.” He claimed that 2 million Jews had already been murdered and that these atrocities were “so horrible” that “decent men and women find them impossible to believe, so monstrous that the civilized world recoils incredulous before them.” He urged the United States to save Europe’s Jews by granting them “asylum now, without delay or red tape.”

According to Sauvage, Fry was mainly “undermined” by “American officials in Washington and in Marseille … Fry attributed his ‘final defeat’ to the ‘craven heart’ of a consul general.” Sauvage is referring to Consul General Hugh S. Fullerton (Netflix renamed him Graham Patterson) who is, indeed, presented as the villain he was.

Indeed, another of Fry’s many torments was America’s failure to open its doors to Europe’s Jews. Sauvage, drawing on Fry’s writing and on the work of historians Christopher R. Browning, Richard Breitman, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Michael R. Marrus, writes, “the door is bolted on the Allies’ side, not on the German side … the Allies were trying to resist what they considered Hitler’s totally hostile attempt to flood them with refugees.”

Fry’s own publisher, Random House, “censored” and “took a scalpel” to his memoir Surrender on Demand. They felt that American public opinion was so antisemitic and anti-refugee that book sales would suffer. One of the suppressed paragraphs reads as follows: “If I have any regret at all about the work we did, it is that it was so slight. In all, we saved some two thousand human beings. We ought to have saved many times that number … And when we failed, it was all too often because of the incomprehension of the government of the United States.”

Fry’s torment may also have been due to something else entirely. Unbelievably, with one exception, the artists and thinkers whom Fry had personally escorted out of France, once safely ensconced in America, refused to return his phone calls, help him find a publisher, or donate artwork to help fund the International Rescue Commission, Fry’s philanthropic endeavor.

Dara Horn writes:

What was perhaps most painful for Fry after his return from France was the dissolution of his relationships with the artists and intellectuals he had saved—or rather, the revelation that these relationships were themselves a sort of fiction … Pierre Sauvage pointed out to me that many of those rescued declined to even acknowledge their rescuers in later years.

Why? Did they simply want to put the horrors of the past behind them? Were they ashamed that they were once in need of rescue—and, were they incapable of either gratitude or reciprocity? Perhaps these “geniuses” were elitists, as arrogant as royalty; clearly, Fry was not one of them, and therefore he did not deserve their help.

As Horn puts it, “Varian Fry’s oddness was not that of Marcel Duchamp. It was that of an Ezekiel. The real reason no one today has heard of Varian Fry is because the gift he had is not one that we value.”

Phyllis Chesler is the author of 20 books, including the landmark feminist classics Women and Madness (1972), Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (2002), An American Bride in Kabul (2013), which won a National Jewish Book Award, and A Politically Incorrect Feminist. Her most recent work is Requiem for a Female Serial Killer. She is a founding member of the Original Women of the Wall.