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Varian's War
Getting the Big Picture Wrong

How much responsibility do filmmakers have towards a great man
and an important time in history?

Varian's War

a cable movie purporting to be about Varian Fry
and starring William Hurt and Julia Ormond
written and directed by Lionel Chetwynd

premiered April 22, 2001 on Showtime 

"[History] offers us many stories worth telling, some belong to other people, who paid for them with their lives.  We may retell their stories badly or well. We may embellish them or get them wrong. But we should not do so blithely, just as we should not scrawl slogans on other people's houses, or stride into their living rooms to replace the furniture.  Thinking that we can is not novel history. It's novel morality, unworthy of artists and storytellers."
Carlin Romano, Accuracy: a Novel Notion in Historical Novels? [unrelated to Varian's War] The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 13, 2001. 
Romano is critic at large for The Chronicle of Higher Education and literary critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as teacher of philosophy at Temple University.

A very unofficial summary and a few footnotes
by Pierre Sauvage

Check also Varian's War  Press Watch for excerpts from reviews of the movie,
and additional  Comments by Those Who Know

Varian Fry, a fastidious dandy of uncertain sexual orientation (William Hurt, picture left) responds to the Nazi defeat of France in 1940 by starting an Emergency Rescue Committee in New York, with the assistance of his deli buddies Reinhold Niebuhr and a young Thomas Mann.1  (Varian had earlier come face to face with Nazi villainy when visiting Berlin in 1938 during Kristallnacht.2)

In Marseille3, France, Varian is soon tangling with Black-Suited Nazis and Fascist French Officials4 as he seeks to rescue threatened artists and intellectuals from certain death.  Relying on bravado and occasional fleeting touches of a deliberately contrived and flamboyant gay persona to either intimidate or confuse his enemies5, Varian is assisted by the beautiful and sexually liberated Miriam Davenport (Julia Ormond, picture right)6, the  diffident, devoted Albert Hirschman nicknamed
“Beamish”7, and the dour master forger Bill Freier.8

The Marseille Varian experiences is one where swastika flags adorn the reception counters of French hotels, where Jews are roughed up in the street by French police, where posters  recommend to "Hit the Jew," where "All Jew foreigners are to be arrested" according to a police officer, where gay cafés are a prominent feature of the social life, where French, German and American officials happily socialize at dinner parties to which Fry finds himself invited.9

"I should like to sleep with you tonight," Miriam announces grammatically to Varian, who is ignited neither by her beauty nor her kiss, and who explains that he's flattered but "a little special."  When Miriam responds that she collects special men, Varian spells it out: perhaps he's a little too special.  Miriam gets it, and plants a sisterly peck on his cheek.10

At the palatial home of vice-consul Harry Bingham, Varian has encountered a group of very prominent and vulnerable exiles, whom Bingham is sheltering.11  Ultimately, Varian, Miriam and Beamish decide to escort to freedom over the Pyrenees the group consisting of a subdued, rather elderly Marc Chagall and his wife Bella, Franz Werfel (identified as the great author of "Forty Nights of Musa Dagh") and Alma Mahler Werfel (Lynn Redgrave), Heinrich ("perhaps the most famous novelist of our time") Mann and his wife Nelly, Lion Feuchtwanger (who is praised for his satirical work), and the plain-spoken, perky Hannah Arendt, already a major intellectual figure and a buddy of Heinrich’s and Franz’s and Lion’s.12

When Chagall is arrested, Varian persuades a German official that it would be a bad career move to keep Chagall under arrest, as this might encourage the U. S. to enter the war.

On several occasions, Varian has interacted with the roguish Nazi officer apparently running that part of France as well the top local French police official.  The two officials suspect the escape attempt and go to the frontier to thwart it.  Just as they are approaching the group, which is effortlessly making its way through bucolic landscapes and paths adorned with stone trims14, Varian races up the mountain and physically halts the Franco-German car—just in time!

No doubt stunned by Varian's sudden appearance, the two officials apparently forget what they had come down to the frontier for in the first place and, without any questions, agree to accompany Varian back into town.  The refugees are thus able to make their way into Spain.  Closing credits indicate a few of the artists saved by Fry, ending with the name Ferdinand Springer.15

A few footnotes

1    The description of the genesis of the Emergency Rescue Committee in New York--although in the best Mckey Rooney/Judy Garland tradition: "Let's set up a committee!"--bears little relation to reality.  The organization was not created by Varian Fry, and Fry did not hang out with the likes of Thomas Mann (who was then 65 and not in New York) or Reinhold Niebuhr.  For advice about art, Fry suggests asking the curator of the Metropolitan Museum, when of course it is New York's Museum of Modern Art that would have been--and was--involved.  Subsequently, Fry is shown doing very successful fund-raising at a select (and presumably restrictive) suburban country club, an absurd creative touch.  

    Varian Fry was not in Berlin in 1938, although he did find himself in Berlin in 1935 at a time of some anti-Jewish rioting, which he witnessed and wrote about.

    Montreal stands in for Marseille; there is not a single view of the actual city, not even of the Old Port which was and is emblematic of the city.  Indeed, none of the settings aspire to evoke the reality of Fry's stay.  The Hotel Splendide, Fry's initial headquarters, appears like a massive Splendide-Hilton, and his ordinary room is transformed into luxury accomodations that had been prepared, we are told, for France's leader Marshal Pétain.  The small, cramped quarters where Fry and his colleagues set up the first office of the American Relief Center is transformed, for some reason, into huge facilities in a jaw-droppingly swank building.

    The Nazi presence in unoccupied Vichy France was in fact low-keyed, and there was little pro-German or even overtly Fascist sentiment among Vichy officials at that time.

    No one who knew Varian Fry in Marseille remembers any such conduct, nor was Fry the wimpy, mincing character portrayed.  Upon arriving in Marseille, Fry is shown taking off his wedding ring (the real Varian Fry was married twice and had three children).  "You're a queer duck," says one official later, "or so you would have us believe." "This is not the sort of man--if one can call him a man--that one need fear," says another official.  Fiction carried to this extreme cannibalizes history and vandalizes memory; it is also hurtful to the family of a great man.  This is supposed to be, according to the ad campaign, "The true story of the American Schindler"?  For Fry colleague Marcel Verzeano's opinion, please see Comments by Those Who Know.

    The real-life Miriam Davenport, a graduate of Smith not Vassar, and without the Ph.D. from Berlin that is attributed to her, was one of two American women who assisted Fry in Marseille (the other being the heiress Mary Jayne Gold, who is here spared, as is the American Charles Fawcett, who also helped Fry).  Miriam Davenport Ebel, following reports of an earlier draft, forbad the producers from using her name, and subsequent drafts gave the character the fictional name Julia Campbell.  After Ebel's death, presumably, the decision was made to identify her after all, against her stated wishes.  Miriam Davenport Ebel's husband, Dr. Charles Ebel, was not consulted on the film, nor invited to see it or provided a tape.  His opinion is that "Miriam would have alternately roared with laughter and screamed with righteous indignation at the stupidity of almost every scene. "
For some reason, journalists have been told that the "Miriam Davenport" character is in fact a "composite" character.   But the only other American woman who worked with Fry in Marseille was Mary Jayne Gold, and she bears no more relation to the character portrayed by Ms. Ormond than does the real Miriam Davenport.  (Gold's memoirs of her experiences in Marseille have just been published in France as Marseille Année 40, to unanimous acclaim.) 

    Dr. Albert O. Hirschman is prominently portrayed in this movie without his permission ever have been sought or without his having ever been consulted in any way.  Annette Riley Fry, Fry's second wife, was similarly excluded from any input into the movie.  Although the movie lists Donald Carroll for "Original Research"--mispelling his name as "Caroll"--Carroll has indicated for the record that his input was limited to a (scathing) critique of an early draft of the screenplay and that he has had no involvement in the movie for over four years.  He has stated that he is astonished to have been given a screen credit that he did not want.  It would thus appear that the movie was made essentially without the input of any historical consultants or anybody else in a position to know anything about the rescue mission. 

    Bill Freier, who was later known as Bil Spira, died in 2000; he was a humorist with a constant twinkle in his eye.  Of course, many other people, including many refugees (and three other Americans, Mary Jayne Gold, Charles Fernley Fawcett and Leon Ball), worked with Fry in Marseille.

    This characterization of life in Vichy France in 1940-41 is as fictional as the depiction of Marseille itself.

   Mercifully, neither Varian Fry nor Miriam Davenport Ebel are still around to experience this ludicrous and entirely fictional depiction of their personalities and relationship.

   Hiram ("Harry") Bingham IV was indeed a rare righteous American vice-consul, sheltered Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger in his modest villa, and assisted many other refugees.  Son Bill Bingham, one of the few connected to the story who was allowed to see the film prior to its broadcast, has conveyed an opinion for the record: "The film is dreadfully inaccurate and demeaning to Fry, Feuchtwanger, Miriam Davenport and others, despite the apparent desire to honor them."

12   Early on in his year in Marseille, Varian Fry and co-worker Leon Ball accompanied a group composed of Franz Werfel and his wife Alma Mahler Werfel, Heinrich and Nelly Mann, and Thomas Mann’s son Golo Mann to the Spanish border, where they were successfully smuggled across.  Lion and Marta Feucthwanger, Marc and Bella Chagall left later and less dramatically, as did Hannah Arendt and her husband.  Chagall was then youthful and ebullient. The correct title for Werfel's famous novel is "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh."  To be sure, the characterization of Heinrich Mann as "perhaps the most famous novelist of our time" does not occur in his brother Thomas' presence.  Feuchtwanger was known as an author of historical novels and was not a satirical writer; the emotional breakdown he is portrayed as having is an especially unlikely addition to the historical record.  Arendt was then an obscure intellectual, and did not hob-knob in Marseille with the likes of Franz Werfel and Lion Feutchwanger.

13    In reality, Germans were not overseeing arrests in unoccupied Vichy France (thoughout France, the Germans were perfectly happy to have Vichy do all the work), and it was a French police official that Fry persuaded to release Chagall.  Of course, the notion that a Nazi would be swayed by the absurd argument that Fry gives is preposterous, or that anybody is his right mind could think there was a risk of the U. S. being influenced to any degree to enter the war because of the arrest of a famous Jewish painter.

14   Even the foothills of the Pyrenees, where goat and smugglers' paths served for many fleeing refugees, do not, in fact, resemble a city park.

    Ferdinand Springer, a German artist then living in France, received no assistance from Varian Fry.  He got to Switzerland on his own in 1942.  Of course, with a little bit of research, many other artists helped by the Emergency Rescue Committee could have been included in the very modest closing montage.

For additional information on Varian Fry and the real rescue effort, please see http://www.varianfry.org/index.htm.
For information on the real Miriam Davenport, please see http://www.varianfry.org/ebel_en.htm.  For her husband's opinion on the movie, please see
Comments by Those Who Know
Please see Varian's War  Press Watch for excerpts from reviews of the movie.

Background information

A Showtime Networks presentation in association with Barwood Films and Ardent Productions.  An Ardglasson Productions-Gryphon Films co-production.  Hallmark Entertainment.
A film by Lionel Chetwynd (see also The Principal Pariah)
William Hurt, Julia Ormond in Varian’s War: The Forgotten Hero.
With Matt Craven, Maury Chaykin.  Special appearance by Alan Arkin as Freier and Lynn Redgrave.  With Remy Girard, Gloria Carlin, Vlasta Vrana, Ted Whitall, Chris Heyerdahl, Joel Miller, John Dunn-Hill, Dorothee Berryman.
Executive Producers: Barbra Streisand, Cis Corman, Edward Wessex
Produced by Kevin Tierney and Michael Deakin

Varian Fry: William Hurt
Miriam Davenport: Julia Ormond
Beamish: Matt Craven
Marcello: Maury Chaykin
Frier: Alan Arkin
Alma Werfel-Mahler: Lynn Redgrave
Joubert: Remy Girard
Marius Franken: Christopher Heyerdahl
Bella Chagall: Gloria Carlin
Marc Chagall: Joel Miller
Franz Werfel: Vlasta Vrana
Heinrich Mann: John Dunn-Hill
Harry Bingham: Ted Whittall
Madame Fanny: Dorothee Berryman
Susie Almgren
Barry Blake
Noel Burton
Alain Goulem
Walter Massey

Additional hyperlinks

Press references to Varian's War
Hallmark Entertainment
's website
: “The triumph of Varian Fry is in the way in which he changed the world. The tragedy is that the world has forgotten him.  From Hallmark Entertainment comes Varian's War, an untold true story of World War II and an ordinary man with extraordinary courage.  The first film to honor this unlikely American hero, Varian's War unveils an astonishing and unknown chapter of the Holocaust. Breathlessly dramatic, unbelievably true and courageous, it is a must-see event of one man's personal journey to save history.”  (Editorial comment: It does not appear that anybody who ever knew Varian Fry ever considered him to be "an ordinary man"!)
Lynn Redgrave's website on Varian's War (Ms. Redgrave plays Alma Mahler Werfel in the movie)

Harald Winter's website on Varian's War

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