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I saw this film last night at its advanced screening at the WorldFest Film Festival in Houston. This Canadian production is absolutely marvelous. A feel-good movie about the Holocaust is hard to come by, but this not only fits that description, it refrains from becoming a sappy and trite "let's save the world" flick. Instead, it treats its subject matter with dignity and reveals itself as a poignant film that will cause you to question your own character and faith in humanity. Not only is the story well put together (and based on a true story, at that!), but the acting is terrific, with William Hurt and Julia Ormond delivering outstanding performances. You won't miss the character of Bella Chagall, who steals every scene she's in. Even the minor characters appear to be three-dimensional rather than simple window dressing. The costuming was absolutely sensational; I don't think I've really ever bothered to look at costuming and lighting before but in this case, it's so perfect you can't help but notice. You must see this film!
"Varian's War" tells of Varian Fry, an American citizen who sets about to liberate the great minds of Europe in the years prior to American involvement in WWII. An entertaining historical drama built for Showtime, this well made but somewhat scripted and theatrical film illuminates the mechanics of Fry's mission but is more stilted than engaging, more mechanical than compelling, and possibly bit off a piece of history bigger than what it could chew. Worth watching more for historical than dramatic value.
This man is something of a Schindler, if you will, but he focused mainly on saving artists. Beautifully played by William Hurt, with great supporting actors all around him, this film was obviously made on the cheap, but that doesn't cheapen the content which is worthy. A good family film. I recommend it.
"Varian's War" is a very important film and I, for one, am glad to
see films of this kind being made. Thanks to Barbara Streisand for
backing it, and to the writer and director and composer for the
beautiful music, to William Hurt and Julia Ormond and all the other
fine actors for showing us all, that ONE PERSON CAN MAKE A
DIFFERENCE. Look what this one man has done, all by himself,
creating a group and raising money and saving the lives of some
of the greatest thinkers, artists, musicians and others who have
moved our cultures and civilization forward, and saved our
Thanks to everyone, as this film has given me much to think about and much to strive for. I hope it becomes available for purchase as I would like my students and everyone I know to see it, at least one time, and consider what course of action we might all take - if only for once in our lives - that might make the tiniest bit of "difference" as Varian has done. Yours sincerely, Catherine Todd
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
William Hurt does a masterful job as Varian Fry, who in Europe in 1939
witnessed terrible treatment of Jews, just because they were Jews. Back
home in the USA, he obtained financial donations and support from Mrs.
Roosevelt, the president's wife, and alone headed in 1940 to
Marseilles, France with a list of about 8 or 10 Jewish "artists" that
he wanted to save. The area was heavily occupied by German Nazis, and
the French pretty much conceded that Germany was going to win the war.
This movie is the story of Varian Fry's efforts to extract Jews from
France, even though it had been made illegal to do so, and anyone
caught attempting to circumvent the law would likely be executed.
Excellent movie, never seems long at two hours.
SPOILERS FOLLOW. Varian goes to France with no real plan other than to find the people and work things out as he needed. He was sent help in the person of Miriam Davenport (Julia Ormond), and recruited others sympathetic to his mission, a Jew that he named "Beamish" (Matt Craven) and a counterfeit expert played by Alan Arkin. They play a sort of cat and mouse game with the French and German police, they can't let them know their real purpose, and with really good counterfeit documents manage to get a group of Jews into Spain. It was set up by a train trip, then they hiked through the mountain forest to arrive at the checkpoint undetected. After that the movie ended, but the efforts were repeated successfully many times during 1940 and 1941, saving about 2000 all together. Many musicians, authors, painters, sculptors.
The DVD has a number of interesting extras, including some photos of the real Varian Fry.
In the midst of the Nazi madness when goons hunted down
artists, thinkers, and other "misfits" or "queer ducks,"
Varian Fry was a man who decided to prevent the
intellectual and artistic soul of civilization from going
into a new dark age. He rescued people who would have
otherwise been sacrificed to neutrality as well as to
This is an excellent TV-film that is a memorial to the people who fought against fascism before the armies ever mobilized. The mind is mightier than the explosive and the bullet.
I have awarded this film a ten, because a few months ago, the
Secretary of State, Colin Powell, gave a posthumous award for "constructive dissent" to Hiram (or Harry) Bingham, IV
recognizing that he issued 2500 visas against the wishes of the
State Department and President Roosevelt. The people he saved
included the artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst and the family of
the writer Thomas Mann.
Bingham's father (on whom the fictional character Indiana Jones
was based) was the archeologist who unearthed the Inca city of
Machu Picchu, Peru in 1911.
He has now been honored by many groups and organizations
including the United Nations and the State of Israel.
The TV film Wallenberg: A Hero's Story (1985) is a great
companion piece. Bingham passed away in 1988 practically
penniless, and the circumstances of Wallenberg's death remain a
It is truly a tragedy that the great principled human beings are
recognized after their passing. But the film industry does do the
world a service when it brings important history to the attention of
those who would ever have known.
The movie plods along - victim of a poor screenplay that: i) distorts
terribly the real facts, ii) fails to convey the excitement and danger of
the undertaking, iii) fails to address the underlying moral question of
seeking to save only those who've made their names in the arts, and iv)
fails to sufficiently acquaint the audience with the merits of those who
escape. The best thing about the movie (as true in so many movies) is Alan
Arkin's performance in a small role - he's always superb.
I've no problem with the alteration of some facts in order to make a more compelling story. Thus, the fact that Chagall and his wife did not make the trip with Werfel and Heinrich Mann but went at a different time, or that there were actually up to a dozen people working with the committee (many of them European), or that Fry hardly ever personally escorted any of the people into Spain, I see as normal poetic license.
However, to say that the Miriam Davenport character is a composite - but then to steal the name of a real person who died during the production in order to present a terribly ugly and false portrait of her, is not forgivable. From what I've read (including her journal), the real Davenport was a very young, sweet idealistic person whose fiance was trapped in Yugoslavia, not the coarse, promiscuous and tough creature given this name in the movie - (and given a fictitious physical ailment).
And to make Fry a bizarre, hesitant, effete man who affects a dandy's guise - is absurd. Again, from what I've read, the real Fry was smart, straightforward, strict, and decisive. (And he didn't die penniless, but was teaching classics at a New England prep school).
No one in the movie addresses the central moral question - why should the lives of those in the arts be more precious? The vast majority of those saved, had done their best work long before (Arendt is the obvious exception) - they weren't being saved for their future contributions so much as their past. Would it not be at least arguable that those saved should be those who were most involved in charitable works, had the greatest "heart"? Or that those saved should be those whose past indicated the most practicable help to the U.S. should it get into the war? Or that those saved should be those who had the closest family relation to American citizens? The movie's failure to address these questions - and blithe assumption that those in the arts are simply superior to the rest of us, so their very lives are more worthy of preservation - is deeply annoying.
Moreover, the movie fails to convey any sense of the value of the particular people saved. We need to know why these particular people are so important to Fry and others. Why could they not give the viewer a sense of the writing of Heinrich Mann, Feuchtwanger or Werfel? Why could they not show a single canvas of the work of Duchamps, Ernst or Chagall? Why could they not show some of the sculpture of Lipschutz? The political musings of Arendt? We need to know why these people are so critical.
This movie is dull. Those who like it on this board seem really to be responding to the idea of a movie about Fry's work - or to be (quite justly) praising what he and others in the committee did. Since the central drama of the personalities involved is so falsely presented, it's far far better to simply read about them.
Varian was not known to me before this movie and I was disappointed that the movie didn't bring out more about him and his motivations. However, both Hurt and Ormond gave fabulous performances. He had that strange "Roosevelt" gait that you see so much in the 40's and was very understated. This had the look of pretty standard Made-for-TV fare. Usually Showtime kicks it up a notch, but not this time.
This movie successfully takes one back to the dark days after the fall of France. Jews have escaped to Vichy (unoccupied, southern) France, where they are trapped as the puppet French government and Nazi forces prepare for deportations to concentration camps. (The construction of death camps still lay in the future....). Varian Fry is an American of conscience who goes to France in the days when the U.S. was still a neutral power to see if he can assist prominent Jewish intellectuals to get out and to the United States. This documentary tells the story of his actions, and the first group out. It is low-key, subtle, but gripping in a very human way.... It truly takes one back into a time when good and evil not only coexisted, but shook hands, exchanged pleasantries, dined together, and smiled across the abyss at each other's visage.... Put this on your 'must see' list -- and take the kids, too!
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