Transatlantic review: Dark times, with a dash of artsy levity

Lucas Englander as Albert Hirschmann and Gillian Jacobs as Mary Jayne Gold in Transatlantic

Doesn’t it seem like it would be hard to make a series about World War II now, after decades and decades of Hollywood treading that territory? Well, creators Anna Winger and Daniel Hendler have done just that with their Netflix drama Transatlantic, which premieres April 7. What’s more, they’ve managed to do something fresh with it—and even tossed in a little artsy levity and smoochin’, no less.

The focus here is not on any military operation. The British were the only ones fighting the Nazis in 1940, when the show begins, and it wasn’t going great. Paris has fallen under Hitler’s control, and Jewish refugees have fled to Marseilles in the South of France, hoping to find a way to anywhere they won’t be targeted by the Gestapo. That’s where our guys come in, real people (well, real actors playing fictionalized versions of real people) who worked for or with the Emergency Rescue Committee, a U.S. effort that rallied bureaucrats to grant visas to politically targeted artists and intellectuals fleeing German occupation. Varian Fry, an American journalist who led the organization, was the most famous of them, but he was joined by others with their own unique talents to contribute. And that’s the focus of this show.

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It’s kind of a history lesson, and that’s okay. Because it’s a pretty amazing, not super well-known thing that Fry and his team were able to do. They saved more than 2,000 refugees by navigating the systems available to them, including foreign embassies, favors, and forgeries. Their primary aim was to transport major artists and thinkers, like Marcel Duchamp and Marc Chagall, targeted by the Nazi regime for their Jewish background or anti-fascist leanings, to the U.S., and they succeeded to a substantial degree, revitalizing the country’s cultural cachet (and, you know, saving people’s lives) in the process. Watching this, we get to learn about Mary Jayne Gold (Gillian Jacobs), an heiress who brings not just her money, but also ingenuity and passion to the cause; Albert Hirschman, a Jewish multilingual economist who can easily inhabit spaces others on the team can’t access (could be his Indiana Jones look); Lisa Fittko, who leads groups of refugees out of France on a path through the Pyrenees into Spain; and, of course, Varian himself. There are also some characters who are fictional with a factual basis, like the confident villa owner Thomas Lovegrove, who provides shelter to unhoused artists awaiting visa clearance, and Paul Kandjo, the hotel clerk from West Africa who takes a revolutionary turn, like some actual immigrants living in France did at that time, to form a burgeoning resistance movement. Because this is based on a novel, and history can be a little dry, some romantic entanglements come into play between some characters as well. So, as we alluded to, cue the smoochin’.

And then there’s that artsy stuff. A whole villa full of artists and intellectuals—Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Hannah Arendt, Victor Serge—are living in fear for their lives, being their weirdo selves for the sake of grounding and pure amusement. This is also the time of the surrealists, so yeah, you’re gonna get some weird parties where people wear shoes on their heads and gloves attached to evening gowns. The surrealist element also shows up in little cinematic, experimental vignettes staged throughout, complete with the special effects of that period (i.e. a guy getting stabbed in the hand, but it’s shown in shadow—cut to the hand, bleeding). The end credits are filmed in that style as well, and each time, they feel like a reminder that people didn’t only go fight in WWII (once the U.S. military got involved) or wait back home, crying, in the ’40s. They made art! They played around! They, yes, smooched!

Gillian Jacobs, Corey Stoll

There’s still something uncomfortable about watching people experiencing joy in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, but maybe that’s the point. (Honestly, it’s probably a pretty familiar feeling to people living in our current reality sometimes.) Characters within the show reference not being able to sleep. They agonize over the people on the beach waiting to be saved, who don’t fit into the narrow boxes of “professional artist, a politician, or a published academic” that would make them eligible for visas out of France. It can feel natural to watch scenes of parties at the villa and think about how privileged these people were to have had this exalted status that could save them from persecution and death that the average vineyard worker wouldn’t have. On the other hand, this is just what artists do, and it’s important to depict that. In darkness, they can make their own light with whatever they have on hand, lifting others out of that darkness, too, just long enough to recharge and fight another day.

Another important depiction in Transatlantic is of mundane acts of resistance: the French policeman who sees a teddy bear fall from a cart hiding refugees and calls no attention to it, letting it pass; the soldiers guarding a prison who watch as our heroes prepare an operation beyond its gates and say nothing. It’s heartening to imagine people who may have been too afraid to risk their lives directly, but could sure feign ignorance in a pinch to keep others out of danger. It’s meaningful. It helps.

Transatlantic | Official Trailer | Netflix

The villainy depicted is more mundane, too, which may sound shocking. The Gestapo are more of a threatening aura here; the characters don’t have much direct contact with them at all. The greedy U.S. consul (based on a real guy but called Graham Patterson in the show) and the French National Police captain Phillippe Frot are the squares the ERC keeps fighting against. Patterson holds to the idea that maintaining American business relationships with both sides is the highest priority for the U.S., and Frot is your basic law and order, rules are rules kind of guy, a fascist fanboy. They’re annoying, but their dogged obedience to authority or money makes them scary, too.

Aesthetically, this show satisfies on various levels. The surrealist art in the villa is fun to look at; Marseilles (or wherever they filmed this, if it isn’t actually Marseilles) is beautiful; and Mary Jayne’s clothes are a maximalist’s dream with bold contrasts, colors, and patterns. We often get at least a pretty dress and some views in a WWII-era period piece, but this seems to double down. And historically, it was all there: Marseilles existed in 1940; high fashion was a thing that was definitely accessible to a rich girl from Chicago; surrealists were making art ... so why not tap into it? This show feels like an exercise in highlighting the good in an unquestionably dark time, without insensitively skirting around the danger and tragedy of it all. It feels like an adoptable practice, an example worth following to navigate scary events ourselves.

Transatlantic premieres April 7 on Netflix

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