A man named Varian Fry was one of the unsung heroes of World War II. Now an
excellent made-for-TV movie finally celebrates this "American
Schindler" ("Varian's War" on Showtime, Sunday, 8-10 p.m.,
starring William Hurt, Julia Ormond, and Alan Arkin).
While Oscar Schindler saved 1,000 people from Nazi destruction, Mr. Fry saved
well over 2,000. Acting with a handful of American friends, and without the
help of the American government, Fry rescued Jewish and other European artists
and intellectuals - such as painter Marc Chagall, political philosopher Hannah
Arendt, historian Heinrich Mann, and artist Max Ernst - from French fascists
"Varian Fry's enemies were not the Nazis," says writer and director
Lionel Chetwynd, "they were the French fascists. There was a vast and
elaborate collaboration between the French and the Germans at the level of the
state and among ordinary people.... Fry was thrown out of unoccupied France by
the French for aiding Jews and other anti-Nazis."
Fry was a wealthy New Yorker, who had grown up in Europe. A Harvard graduate
and a Christian, he numbered among his friends Christian theologian Reinhold
Niebuhr, who helped plan the actions of the Emergency Rescue Committee.
Realizing from firsthand experience what the fascists are up to, Fry breezes
into unoccupied Marseilles and checks into a four-star hotel. With the help of
Harry Bingham of the US Consulate, an American woman (Julia Ormond), and a
couple of street-smart rebels, he outsmarts the opposition.
William Hurt is superb, restrained, and constantly inventive as Fry. He
projects a profound conscience and sensitivity, as well as integrity. Fry is
confronted with the dark side of his mission of mercy - there are only a few
he can save and thousands needing to be saved. So he must choose among them.
The moral dilemma is great, and neither Hurt nor writer-director Chetwynd
minimize it. But, Mr. Chetwynd points out, Fry had a special charge.
"Most stories about the Holocaust are about the degradation of the body.
This story is not about bodies, but about the soul," Chetwynd says.
Fry was trying to save the soul and conscience of Europe. Hitler had millions
in his thrall. But many who refused to be hypnotized were the special targets
of his antagonism, along with the Jews. Fry saved those persecuted who could
express themselves through art, so that they in turn would help wake the
conscience of America. One of Chetwynd's nicest touches is to show the women
of the era not as politically correct proto-feminists, but as they were -
courageous, smart, and refined.
© 2001, The Christian Science Publishing Society
[Varian Fry Institute]
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June 25, 2006