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Jewish Journal

Saving Europe’s Soul

by Tom Tugend

April 19, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Writer-director Lionel Chetwynd on the set of Varian's War

Writer-director Lionel Chetwynd on the set of Varian's War

If the Holocaust had its millions of unsung victims, it also had thousands of unknown rescuers, of whom some paid with their lives and many others with broken careers and social ostracism.

Among the latter, Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler may be the best-known names, but their ranks include 63 diplomats from 24 countries. The civil courage of four of the latter was celebrated in the recent documentary "Diplomats for the Damned."

A fresh entry in this relatively new genre is "Varian's War," a two-hour docudrama which will air on Showtime on Sun., April 22, at 8 p.m.

The title character is Varian Fry, a gentile classicist and scholarly editor, who in 1940, when most Americans still ignored the Nazi threat and opposed the admission of Jewish refugees, decided to launch his own rescue operation.

As an envoy of the New York-based Emergency Rescue Committee, he made his way to Marseilles, in unoccupied Vichy France, where thousands of refugees were clamoring to escape Hitler's juggernaut.

Fry had a specific mission: to rescue the great artists and intellectuals, "the soul of Europe," and bring them to the United States.

On his list were painters Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, writers Franz Werfel, Lion Feuchtwanger, Heinrich Mann and Hannah Arendt, and scientist Otto Meyerhof.

To achieve his goal, the scholarly 32-year-old Fry, played by William Hurt, found himself knee-deep in forged documents, illegal financial transactions, and games of bluff with Vichy and German officials.

He was aided by Miriam Davenport (played by Julia Ormond), a sexually liberated American woman; U.S. vice consul Harry Bingham (Ted Whittall); a shrewd refugee (Matt Craven); a skilled forger (Alan Arkin) and a feisty Alma Werfel-Mahler (Lynn Redgrave).

Fry's job was not made easier, at least in this version, by Chagall, who insisted that as a French citizen and famous artist, he was immune to Nazi persecution.

In a climactic scene, Fry leads his famous charges across the Pyrenees Mountains to safety in Spain.

Writer-director of "Varian's War" is Lionel Chetwynd, whose TV credits include "Sadat" and "The Man Who Captured Eichmann," and whose screenplay adaptation of "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" received an Oscar nomination in 1974.

He has drawn generally satisfying performances from an able cast, including Hurt, who starts out as a rather pale figure but gains in strength and authority as the film progresses.

Documentary filmmaker Pierre Sauvage ("Weapons of the Spirit"), who is preparing his own documentary on Fry for PBS, has posted on his Web site a critique of "Varian's War," charging minor and substantial errors in chronology and character depiction.

Chetwynd acknowledges that some of the characters represent composites and that he has striven for "a dramatized presentation of reality."

But what matters to Chetwynd, he says, is that "here was a man who put his body between the culture of Europe and the darkness of Europe.

"In that sense, Fry saved a little bit of all of us. Anyone who, for instance, has seen the Chagall windows in Jerusalem will agree to that."

During an earlier press conference, Chetwynd was asked if the networks, cable and movie studios weren't producing an overdose of Holocaust-related productions.

"No," Chetwynd responded. "When you rotate the prism of that era, time and time again, each moment comes up with a different picture."

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