“Transatlantic,” the limited series based on the life of Varian Fry and the early days of the Emergency Rescue Committee, which helped rescue around 2000 anti-Nazi and Jewish refugees from World War II Europe, is one of the best new shows you’ll watch this year.
Aside from its incredible cast — which features Jewish actor Corey Stoll, Gillian Jacobs and Israeli rising star Amit Rahav from “Unorthodox,” to name a few — and the gorgeous cinematography that shines a fresh and rejuvenating light on 1940s Marseilles, the show’s excellence can be significantly credited to its Jewish creator, Anna Winger.
Winger is a maker of deft TV, a re-animator of history, an intrepid explorer of the lines between fact and fiction. Her “Deutschland” series of German shows delve into the country’s history in ways that make it feel more prescient than ever. And in “Unorthodox,” she drew from the real story of Deborah Feldman, who left her ultra-Orthodox enclave in Brooklyn, to create a powerful, feminist tale.
Rather than feeling didactic or stale, history is alive, complex and illuminating in Winger’s oeuvre, including her newest show, which juggles a dark moment in history with the living, loving, passionate human beings entangled in it. Now streaming on Netflix, “Transatlantic” is adapted from the novel “The Flight Portfolio” by Jewish writer Julie Orringer.
Aside from Fry’s story, which becomes even more nuanced as the show delves into his queerness, Winger brings to life a number of Jewish legends in the Netflix series. There’s the heartbreaking genius of Walter Benjamin, played by Moritz Bleibtreu, who passionately talks about tikkun olam. We meet the artist of the shtetl, Marc Chagall (Gera Sandler), who speaks in Yiddish onscreen. And there’s a young Hannah Arendt, played the Jewish German co-creator of “Unorthodox,” Alexa Karolinski.
Kveller talked with Winger about authentic Jewish casting, how she navigates telling fictionalized tales about history and why she decided to tell this story, despite swearing that she’d never work on a World War II show.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Did you know about Varian Fry’s story before reading Orringer’s “The Flight Portfolio”?
I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts; my parents are professors of anthropology at Harvard. There were actually a lot of people at Harvard, in Cambridge, who had been refugees in World War II. Albert Hirschman was a professor at Harvard for a while, and he was one of the people in the Emergency Rescue Committee. So it was a story that I had heard through my parents.
Before my parents were at Harvard, they were at the University of Chicago, where they were involved in protesting the Vietnam War. Lisa Fittko [a Jewish refugee who also helped the ERC smuggle fellow refugees] was also in the same organization that was protesting the Vietnam War. She remained a pacifist and an activist all her life. My parents knew her as well. So this was a story that they had told me.
What made you feel connected to this story now?
In 2015 and 2016, a million refugees moved to Germany. I live in Berlin, and during that time, a lot of us were so engaged in that experience. Everybody was helping in refugee camps, and helping people get resettled. At my daughter’s school, there were over 20 unaccompanied minors who came to Berlin. So there were a lot of ways in which we were all participating and helping the people who were coming, mostly from Syria.
That was a really intense moment of reflection for us as a family. My eldest daughter was 12 at the time, and she was helping me volunteer in the refugee camps. She said, after the first day, “You know, this is just like our people, except that they’re coming to Berlin, and people like us had to leave.” That was an amazing moment for all of us to think about, because there’s so many Jews who now live in Berlin, and it’s this kind of weird doubling back on history that we really processed.
In “Unorthodox,” there’s the idea that [Esty] had returned to the site of the original trauma in order face herself and then her own demons. That story of Varian Fry — all of this came up again while I was making “Unorthodox.” I was thinking a lot about what had happened in Berlin — it’s crazy a couple of years later after everyone came over, they’ve just integrated, and you don’t think about it anymore. It just becomes part of the fabric of our lives, that there’s people who came from Syria, and now they’re German and their kids are in our school. It’s weird how these things just become part of your life in a way that’s really beautiful, right? I guess that was the origin.
But of course, when we started shooting it, three days later, the war in Ukraine started. So then it was this uncanny situation where we were shooting it during a new war in Europe, and a new refugee crisis, because people were coming from Ukraine to Berlin and to Western Europe and needed help. So it was all this kind of doubling back on history. I returned to the story because of one thing, but then ultimately, it became about something else.
This story is very relevant. I also feel like the people who remember these stories and who lived them are dying out, and it’s left to the rest of us to keep telling these stories so people don’t forget. We always say “never forget” about the Holocaust. I feel we have to remind people like, you know, things come back. So that’s why, to me, it felt like it was important to return to this story, even though, to be honest with you, I said I’d never do a World War II project.
What was it like shooting in Marseilles? It’s still an immigrant city, and such an important historical place, with a significant Jewish community.
It was just an incredible experience for all of us as cast and crew, because we were living there for four to six months. We were all together in this very walkable city, and we could often walk to set. We were shooting at a lot of locations where things had happened. So there was this kind of “if these walls could talk” — we were in these spaces of living history.
Obviously, coming out of the whole COVID lockdown phase, it was just kind of a celebration of what we do, to go to our location and immerse yourself somewhere else.
At one point, we had three weeks of night shoots and everybody was crazy exhausted and sitting in dusty alleys at 3 in the morning, and we were all like, we’re so lucky we can do this. Everybody was very happy to be in it.
What was it like working with Amit [Rahav] again?
What do you think? Amit is the greatest! I wrote the role for him, I made [Thomas Lovegrove, Varian Fry’s fictional lover] an early Zionist pioneer so he could be played by Amit. I was like, you come on this adventure, and we’ll make this work. He’s so great in it, don’t you think?
He’s so charming, so convincing. I love the chemistry between him and Cory [Michael Smith who plays Varian Fry].
We had such amazing actors on the show. They’re all so intelligent, and they were so engaged in it. It was really a privilege.
Also, I don’t know if you recognized, but the people who play the Chagalls are both from the Yiddish Theatre in New York. The actor who plays Chagall plays the father in “Unorthodox” and the wife plays Esty’s aunt. It was a little inside joke just to our community, that we always imagined that the Chagalls would speak to each other in Yiddish. What’s so funny about Chagall is that he’s really thought of as a French painter, even now, but of course, all of his work is about the shtetl. So it’s this funny kind of disconnect. They were from basically what’s now Ukraine. They must have been Yiddish speaking there.
You know, [Chagall’s first wife] Bella actually died when they came [to America]. She died of influenza. They had been so close, and they came to America together. I don’t know if maybe they spoke French; they had been in France for maybe 18 years when this happened. But they had grown up together, so I like to imagine that they spoke Yiddish.
I’m such a big Marc Chagall fan, so it was wonderful to see him portrayed in the show. What was it like trying to portray these iconic characters, like Chagall and Arendt?
We tried to make them secondary characters, in part because each of these people deserves their own series. You can make a whole five seasons about Chagall, right? You can make five seasons about Albert Hirschman. There’s so much material.
We tried to make them weave together in a really organic way, and then, of course, we always tried to find humanizing things. With Hannah [Arendt], she’s this young intellectual; with the Chagalls, the Yiddish thing was sort of a key into it, a little window into it. With Walter Benjamin, it was the hashish. He presumably didn’t speak in full sentences and full philosophical tracts, so we were trying to imagine what he was like, in that moment when he felt so panicked. We were trying to get into the things that made them human and not just famous.
I was really surprised to see your “Unorthodox” co-creator Alexa Karolinski play Hannah Arendt!
It was a big ask on my part, and I wept her first day on set — she really did me a huge favor!
For me, it was really important that a Jewish German woman play her. We did a lot of casting but no one felt right. When everyone thinks of Arendt, they think of her in her 60s, when she was interviewed after the Eichmann trial — she’s smoking and she’s old with short hair. She’s 34 in our story, but everybody [auditioning was] kind of imitating her as an old woman.
There was actually a Hannah Arendt exhibit at the Deutsche Historisches Museum, and there were all these pictures of her young, and I was like, “It’s crazy how much she looks like Alexa.” So I approached her and said, “You have to play on air,” and she was like, “I’m not an actress.” I was like, “You’ve got three months.”
She’s incredible for someone with zero acting experience.
Jeff Wilbusch [who played Moishe in “Unorthodox”] totally trained her. He did a kind of acting bootcamp with her, which was really cute.
She says these lines about being stateless and feeling so German, about having no country left. I thought that the whole distinction between culture and citizenship is such a powerful issue, especially for Jews — these diaspora experiences are confusing in that respect. Even if other people don’t know, it was especially meaningful that she say those words.
There’s a lot of talk right now about authentic casting and Jewish casting. In your projects, you tend to cast Jewish actors in Jewish roles — is that a conscious effort?
Yes. I think it matters. With “Unorthodox,” there was no question — we only cast Jewish actors in the roles that were Jewish characters. And we did that this time, too.
In some cases, like Lucas Englander who plays Albert Hirschman, he comes from a mixed family. He’s from Vienna, but his grandfather was a freedom fighter in the Czech Republic in World War II. He has a lot to say about the refugee experience — he’s the European spokesperson for the IRC [International Rescue Committee] and is really engaged with refugee projects in Paris where he lives. Deleila [Piasko, who plays Lisa Fittko] is a Jewish actress from Zurich.
I think the actors all bring something of themselves to the characters. I don’t want to overstate that, because obviously, they’re actors. They’re not the same people as the characters. They’re acting, but they’re drawing on their own experience and on their interests.
It’s not for me to judge, but I’m often surprised at how many Jewish characters are not played by Jewish actors, because there are so many great Jewish actors. I always wonder why. But I’m not going to judge other people’s casting. For me, that’s part of the organic process.
What are you hoping that viewers take from the show, especially Jewish viewers?
I hope there’s a lot of fun for Jewish viewers with all the details in the show.
I deliberately chose this project, of all the World War II projects that have ever crossed my desk, because I feel like it’s a hopeful story. It’s a story of international and intersectional cooperation of all kinds of people, people who would not have otherwise ever met: Jews and non-Jews, men, women, people from different countries, gay people and not gay people. It’s a huge intersectional mix of people who come together to do something amazing.
It’s an example of what’s possible when people work together.