Transatlantic: “Marseille Is a Character in the Show”

Anna Winger, the American writer behind the hit series Unorthodox, has brought the story of the Emergency Rescue Committee to Netflix. Based in Marseille during World War II and led by journalist Varian Fry and heiress Mary Jayne Gold, this U.S. network helped some 2,000 intellectuals, including Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Marc Chagall, to secretly leave France and escape Nazi persecution. We asked the showrunner about Transatlantic, the plight of refugees past and present, and the experience of filming in France.
Lucas Englander (Albert Hirschman) in Transatlantic. © Anika Molnar/Netflix

France-Amérique: Can you tell us about the inception of the show? What prompted you to adapt Julie Orringer’s novel?

Anna Winger: I was interested in the story of the Emergency Rescue Committee before The Flight Portfolio came out [in 2019]. I first heard of it through my father, who knew two people who had worked with Varian Fry in Marseille during the war. The first was [Ukrainian writer] Lisa Fittko – they were in the same group protesting the Vietnam War in the 1960s in Chicago – and the other was [German economist] Albert Hirschman – they were professors at Harvard at the same time, in the 1970s. I grew up in the world of academia, and a lot of people I met had come to America as refugees during World War II. I now live in Berlin, and in 2015, a million asylum seekers arrived in Germany, many of them from Syria. I was volunteering to help people get resettled, and the situation reminded me of the Emergency Rescue Committee. That’s when I started researching the story. Then, when Julie Orringer published her novel, it felt like the universe was telling me something! So I optioned the book and started developing it as a series.

How did you research the story?

I read a lot of books! It’s a story that not many people know, but there’s actually a ton of material about it because everybody who gravitated around the Emergency Rescue Committee was a writer or an artist. Many of the people involved in the story, including Varian Fry himself, wrote novels, short stories, plays, memoirs, or essays about their experience. Mary Jayne Gold’s memoir, Crossroads Marseilles, 1940, is actually one of the few accounts I haven’t read, because it’s not in print anymore…

Gillian Jacobs (Mary Jayne Gold), Cory Smith (Varian Fry), and Amit Rahav (Thomas Lovegrove, fictional). © Anika Molnar/Netflix

The entire show was filmed in and around Marseille. Was it important for you to shoot on location rather than in a studio?

Marseille is a character in the show. The city, then and now, is a crossroads for all kinds of people, and it has a very special feeling to it. It’s beautiful, and it’s dark, and it has this unique light. It also has winding streets, places to hide, and even beaches in the city. So yes, we were determined to shoot on location! We shot at many of the actual locations – the Hôtel Splendide [now a teaching library], the Fort Saint-Nicolas, and even the Camp des Milles [internment facility] outside Aix-en-Provence. Unfortunately, we couldn’t shoot at Villa Air-Bel, through which many of the refugees transited, as it was torn down [in 1982], but we rented a house nearby. It was just a little bit older than the original, but it was the same color and it hadn’t been touched since the 1940s. So the interiors were totally intact. It was an incredible location.

Can you tell us more about your experience in France, on and off set?

I loved working in Marseille! Cinema was born just a few miles away, in La Ciotat, and you can feel it. It was really a privilege to work in France. We had a 70% local crew, and a great mix of actors from the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Great Britain, and France. One of our stars, Grégory Montel [Gabriel in Call My Agent!], is actually from Marseille. For five months during filming, we all lived there – it was like a class trip! I lived in the Panier, and Lucas [Englander, Albert Hirschman in the show] lived right above the Plage des Catalans.

What is left of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee in Marseille today?

The American Consulate is located on Place Varian Fry, but the most incredible thing is at the Musée Cantini, this beautiful museum in the middle of the city. They have all the original artworks that were done at Villa Air-Bel during the war. Artists like André Breton and Max Ernst did collective pieces. They made surrealist tarot cards that are really beautiful, and exquisite-corpse drawings. Breton kept everything, and his daughter Aube Elléouët donated it to the museum. While we were filming in Marseille, the curator at the Musée Cantini told us he was actually preparing an exhibition on Jacqueline Lamba, Breton’s wife, who is also a character in the show.

Let’s talk about Peggy Guggenheim’s character. In Transatlantic, the American collector seems more interested in getting paintings out of France – and into MoMA – than the artists themselves.

I don’t think that’s true at all. She made a real show about getting the art out, because people didn’t take modern works as seriously as the Mona Lisa. But she was committed to getting the artists out, too. She was Jewish and at risk herself, so she wasn’t willing to stay in France and help. She was actually in a hotel raid in the south of France. Upon returning to New York City, she paid for a lot of people’s passage to the United States and worked with [MoMA director] Alfred Barr to get them visas.

Alexander Fehling (Max Ernst) and Jodhi May (Peggy Guggenheim). © Anika Molnar/Netflix

Some reviews of the show claim that it’s too entertaining. As a writer, how do you find that balance between romanticization and historical accuracy?

I have one thing to say about this: I look forward to all the projects that come out and are inspired by the fact that Transatlantic was on Netflix. I would love to watch any documentary about the Emergency Rescue Committee, any biopic about any one of these individuals, and I hope that the show opens the door for those projects to get made. But I was intentional about wanting to bring this little-known story to as many people as possible. There are many Easter eggs in the show, special details for people who care about history and art, but this was never meant to be a history lesson or a docudrama. It is meant to be entertaining and exciting and dramatic for those who have never heard of Varian Fry, Mary Jayne Gold, and all these people.

Can we draw parallels between Esty, the young woman from Unorthodox who leaves her strict religious community, and Mary Jayne Gold, the heiress from Chicago who refuses to conform to her father’s wishes and uses her fortune to become “the bank” of the Emergency Rescue Committee? In a way, they both found freedom abroad.

I find Mary Jayne Gold very interesting because she didn’t have to do this. This is a story about very ordinary people who chose to be helpful against all odds. I called the show Transatlantic because for the European refugees, the only chance for freedom was in the United States. Meanwhile, the Americans found other kinds of personal freedom in France. Their lives only intersect in this transatlantic moment, in Marseille. Both sides are running towards freedom, but they’re running in different directions.

Your show strongly resonates with modern-day refugees arriving from Ukraine, from Africa across the Mediterranean, and from South America into the United States. Do you think that history is repeating itself?

I think it’s important to remember the stories from the past. Even in a crisis, people are human beings – friendship and community and romance remind us that we’re alive. In that sense, Transatlantic is a human story, a celebration of life in the darkest of times.

is now streaming on Netflix.