Monday, January 25, 2010

Can Hollywood Get Anything Right?

This story has everything: a romantic and dangerous port city, a gorgeous heiress in love with a French gangster, forged documents, corrupt government officials, safe houses, secret escapes over rough mountain trails. Moreover, it is the important and true story, of how a young American citizen—who remains relatively unknown to this day—saved more than 2,000 European Jews, Catholics, and others from the Nazis, working virtually on his own, with no official support from the U.S. government.

It’s the story of Varian Fry, founder of the American Relief Center, that operated in Marseilles, France, from 1940-41. Here is what the American Holocaust Museum exhibit honoring Fry said: “Varian Fry [made] heroic efforts to help political and intellectual refugees escape Nazi-controlled Vichy France in 1940 and 1941. An urbane Harvard graduate working as an editor in New York, Fry volunteered for the Emergency Rescue Committee’s project to bring 200 individuals from the French port city of Marseille to safety. Unable to gain cooperation from the French government or the American Consulate in Marseille, Fry established a clandestine operation by which artists, writers, philosophers, and their families — Jews and non-Jews alike — were spirited away to safety. By the time the French expelled Fry in September 1941, he and his colleagues had managed to save some 2,000 refugees, including Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Hannah Arendt, and Andre Breton. When Fry returned to New York, he recounted his story, but few listened. Fry died unexpectedly in 1967 with the pages of his memoirs scattered about him; the police officer who discovered them dismissed them as an apparent ‘work of fiction.’ Not until 1991 did an American institution recognize Fry’s work when the United States Holocaust Memorial Council posthumously awarded him its Eisenhower Liberation Medal. In 1994, Yad Vashem honored Varian Fry as the first American ‘Righteous Among the Nations.’|”

Now, how does Hollywood present the life of Varian Fry, specifically, Showtime’s 1991 film about his rescue mission, Varian’s War? Hollywood throws in the usual garbage: innuendo that Fry was a homosexual, gratuitous scenes of the leading lady discussing her sex life and attempting to seduce Fry, and a comical portrayal of the Nazi SS. Ugh! It compounds the offenses with multiple errors of historical fact and omissions. Marcel Verzeano, a young doctor who worked with Fry’s organization in Marseilles said of the film: “Among those that Fry's organization saved, there were Catholics, Protestants, Jews and people of other religions. There were rightists, leftists, centrists and people of other political affiliations. There were writers, artists, politicians, and people of all kinds of trades and professions. But they all had one thing in common: they had fought for democracy and freedom with every grain of energy they possessed. This is the essence of Fry's accomplishment. Very little of it comes through in Varian's War."

Better to read Fry’s own book on the rescue effort, Surrender on Demand, or seek out the 1997 documentary on the Emergency Rescue Committee, And Crown Thy Good. Or, for younger readers, In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry.

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