War tale doesn't fight common echoes by Peter Howell
June 15, 2001
"We can make our own list," says title character Varian Fry
(William Hurt), referring to his own roster of Nazi-persecuted artists and
intellectuals whom he proposes to save from the ravages of World War II.
Fry doesn't know of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist and Holocaust fighter celebrated by Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning film. Nor is he aware of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who, like Schindler, also helped thousands of Jews escape torture and death.
Fry's comment is really the sotto voce of Varian's War writer-director Lionel Chetwynd, reminding the viewer that many tales of heroism are still to be told about WWII and the Holocaust. And in the case of Varian's War, originally a TV movie filmed in Montreal for Showtime in the U.S., the tale is a particularly good one.
Varian Fry was the Harvard-educated son of a wealthy New York family, the kind of toff who could probably have used his money and influence to simply ride out the 1939-45 global conflict. As portrayed by Hurt, with the actor's customary quiet intensity, Fry seems every bit the idle dandy, with his three-piece linen suits, his walking stick, his owlish spectacles and his fanciful locutions.
He hardly seems the type to be organizing an underground resistance movement in Nazi-occupied France, one dedicated to spiriting to freedom artists and intellectuals whom Fry calls "the soul of Europe." They include the artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, the musician Pablo Casals, writers Hannah Arendt and Franz Werfel and scientists Otto Meyerhof and Emmanuel Revici, the type of people whom the Nazis have targeted for particular pain, by reason of their high profiles and their dedication to independent thought.
A chance visit to Berlin during the Kristallnacht atrocities of 1938, where he witnessed Nazi thugs attacking Jews in the street and burning their homes and businesses, turns Fry from a sheltered aristocrat into a dedicated freedom fighter, despite his lack of heroic mien - when he sees a beaten woman lying in the street, his reaction is to vomit, not to rush to her aid.
Fry returns to America with a zeal to save the great minds of Europe, and to relocate them to a safe haven in America. The film follows him as he fights apathy and red tape at home, and later genuine danger in occupied France, as he puts his plan into action under the suspicious gaze of the Nazis and their Vichy government stooges. Fry builds a resistance team in Marseilles with an unlikely group of like-minded people: an American woman (Julia Ormond) who accosts him in his hotel room, and two men (Matt Craven and Alan Arkin) whom he meets in a brothel - the latter a location deemed, ironically, one of the few safe places to avoid arousing the Nazis.
This isn't a movie of many big Spielbergian moments. It is more one of genuine insight into the day-to-day torment of living under occupying forces, and of the hard decisions to be made during wartime. As word spreads of Fry's intent, and people begin lining up outside his hotel room, all claiming to be artists or intellectuals, he faces the real risk of losing sight of his original mission.
Even the people he knows he wants present a problem. When he tracks down Marc Chagall (Joel Miller), the artist tells him, like Matt Damon's title character in Saving Private Ryan, that he has no desire to be rescued.
"I have no interest in passing fancies, which is all Mr. Hitler is," Chagall scoffs. He will change his tune, but it is one of the strengths of Varian's War that it doesn't attempt, as a more Hollywood movie might, to make heroism seem either easy or inevitable.
Instead it demonstrates that in the real world, it takes all kinds to win a war, and that Varian Fry was truly one of a kind.
© 2001, Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.
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