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Transatlantic captures us at our best and our worst

Transatlantic

Netflix’s poignant wartime drama hits all the history buff buttons.

While Anna Winger’s new series Transatlantic is visually and textually lush, it opens a stark portrayal of the refugee experience. It’s painful, watching as they struggle with the terrain, carrying everything they have in their arms. You hear every labored breath, see every sweat stain. This long opening sequence sets the tone for the rest of the seven-part series–it isn’t glamorous or glossy, just beautifully filtered misery, fear, and hope.

Set in the port city of Marseilles in 1941, Transatlantic takes inspiration from real life and wartime melodramas of the day (Casablanca is clearly a big influence) in its portrayal of Varian Fry (Cory Michael Smith) and Mary Jayne Gold (Gillian Jacobs), two Americans who went to great lengths to get artists, scholars, and the occasional revolutionary out of Vichy before the full occupation of the Third Reich. And yes, while Fry and Gold are the main focus of the storytelling, it is by no means a one-sided portrayal of the downtrodden being selflessly rescued by American Exceptionalism.

Transatlantic balances the heroism of Fry and Co. with the opportunistic scheming of diplomat Graham Patterson (Corey Stoll) and an oily industrialist looking to turn a profit wherever they can, even in Nazi Germany. It’s a poignant counterpoint to see American businessmen hustling for money and power while people flee for their lives. There are plenty of reminders throughout the seven-episode series that America’s insistence on neutrality cost lives, and that our ports turned away boats full of refugees was tantamount to handing down a death sentence.

As long as America has dads and history professors, there will never not be a market for feel-good WWII stories about good conquering evil, where the barrel-chested Yanks roll in and singlehandedly liberate an entire continent. Winger doesn’t let us off the hook quite so easily, nor does she gloss over the other freedom struggles happening at the time, particularly the plight of Africans from the French-controlled Ivory Coast fighting not just for their lives, but for their very identities. 

Transatlantic
Transatlantic (Netflix)

And identity, both national and cultural, plays a huge part in Transatlantic. What makes a nation? Governments and politics, sure, but what about its culture? What is a place if it has nothing that reflects all of itself back to the world? Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee is eager to help preserve the art and philosophy of European Jews and other “undesirables” (poaching the best part of other cultures is, after all, part of our national identity). Yet, he can’t do anything for the teachers, bankers, grocers, and maids who all come looking for help, desperate for a lifeline.

Assisting Fry and Gold is a solid supporting cast of characters, from Hotel Splendid bellboy Paul Kandjo (Ralph Amoussou), Lisa Fittko (Deleila Piasko), who guided refugees over the Pyrenees into Spain, British operative Thomas Lovegrove (Amit Rahav), and Albert Hirschman (Lucas Englander), who aided the ERC and would later become a world-renowned political economist.

Much of the melodrama of Transatlantic comes down to the relationships we built in times of crisis, particularly that of Mary Jane and Albert. There’s an ebb and flow of happiness and fear, love and pain throughout. And their attraction, fraught as it is at times, makes sense. Albert and Mary Jayne share a talent for thinking on their feet and do-or-die strategizing. Both are brilliant observers, but Mary Jayne utilizes her ability to stand out to advantage while Albert seamlessly shifts, chameleon-like, between identities (even in the clothes of a refugee, he successfully convinces Vichy officers that he is Gestapo).  And who wouldn’t fall in love, surrounded by art, poetry and philosophy from a sun-soaked villa in the South of France?

Though the subject matter may be heavy, Transatlantic still offers moments of contemplative joy, such as the absolutely bonkers birthday party thrown for Marcel Duchamp, or the soft wonder of new lovers discovering one another, or hearing arguments from Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, and Hannah Arendt, on what it means to tie part of your identity to a place. “You must be very homesick,” Fry tells Arendt one morning, to which she replies, “I’m not homesick. I’m homeless.” It’s a quietly painful sentiment that reminds us all of the phantom pain of losing such a big part of ourselves. Transatlantic is a thrilling, bittersweet tale of love and war that proves it is more than just dad fodder.

Transatlantic premieres on Netflix April 7th.

Transatlantic Trailer:

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Beau North

BEAU NORTH is the author of four books and contributor to multiple anthologies. Beau lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband. In her spare time, she is the co-host of the podcasts Excessively Diverted: Modern Classics On-Screen and Let’s Get Weirding: A Dune Podcast.

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