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'Transatlantic' Is a WWII Story of Daring Rescues, Screwball Hijinks, and a Sterling Gillian Jacobs Performance

By Alberto Cox Délano | TV | April 11, 2023 |

By Alberto Cox Délano | TV | April 11, 2023 |


One thing to know about Transatlantic is that this miniseries should be paired with Ken Burns’ most recent documentary series, The U.S. and the Holocaust, which dispels all the rosy myths Americans tell themselves about the US founded on welcoming immigrants with open arms … or at least the European ones. The documentary proves how the US could’ve saved hundreds of thousands of European Jewish people in the lead-up to the Holocaust, but a local culture of antisemitism was loud and pervasive enough to scare FDR into inaction (as sponsored by the GOP, prominent WASPs and random evangelical churches). And also, because of the actions of a certain motherf***er called Cordell Hull, Secretary of State from 1933 to 1944 and raging antisemite, who did everything within his power to block US visas to Jewish refugees. For the few that managed to make it Stateside, many had to be sponsored by prominent cultural organizations, like the MET and universities, or they were doing research in key strategic areas.

Based on Julie Orringer’s The Flight Portfolio and co-created by Daniel Hendler (Margin Call) and Anna Winger (Unorthodox), Transatlantic is a partly fictionalized story of the activities of the Emergency Rescue Committee, progenitors of today’s International Rescue Committee, as they operated in 1940 from Marseille, right after the fall of France. Being the only major French port not directly controlled by the Nazi regime, Marseille became the only route for Jewish refugees to escape Europe, either via sea or through the Pyrenees, ironically, into the fascist but neutral Spain, and then into the also fascist but even more neutral Portugal. The ERC had the delicate task of trying to save the most prominent Jewish intellectuals and artists from Europe, people whom the Vichy Government was supposed to arrest and surrender to the Gestapo on sight while working with a deliberately hostile US consulate.

Winger, alongside directors Stéphanie Chuat, Véronique Reymond, and Mia Maariel Meyer, tells the story that breaks with the tonal conventions that we are used to seeing in stories about World War II and the Holocaust. Taking inspiration from the era’s screwball comedies, the narrative treats us to the joy that is breaking the law when doing it against an oppressive regime. Indeed, the ERC had to fake a loooooot of documents, bribe a lot of police officers, work with British Intelligence (technically treason), and use a lot of smoke and mirrors to help over two thousand refugees escape, many of whom were simple folks, not just representatives of Jewish “excellence,” as in the original plan. At the same time, the series mostly eschews a more melodramatic framing for documentary-style camera movements and a less flashy, minimalistic production design. The styles don’t always come together successfully and the tonal shifts can be puzzling. There are moments you’d wish you could see more hijinks during rescue operations, and at other times, you’d like to see the camera, as a narrator in itself, to stop moving around and allow the characters to develop themselves. But then, there are the times when these elements work perfectly, like the scene where this community of artists and intellectuals (including Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst, Duchamp, Bréton and Lévi-Strauss) shake off the tensions in a madcap, surrealist-inspired dinner party. Or the final episode, which is a tribute to Casablanca. It is in those moments when Transatlantic reveals itself as a unique gem among World War II stories.

The ensemble cast is what lifts Transatlantic into a status beyond just another WWII story, as Winger creates a fully lived world of nuances. Cory Michael Smith is heartbreaking as Varian Fry, the NYT reporter that managed the ERC. His character is at the same time overwhelmed by his responsibilities, as well as having to live as a closeted Queer man in the 1940s. He is further stressed as he runs into an old flame, Thomas Lovegrove (Amit Rahav), a wealthy Jewish heir. Transatlantic also pays tribute to the key role African people played in organizing the French Resistance, in the role of Paul (Ralph Amoussou) and Jacques Kandjo (Birane Ba), two Dahomey concierges at the five-star hotel used by the ERC. The series also breaks away from the narratives of Jewish people being passive victims, highlighting the badass efforts of figures like Lisa Fittko (Deleila Piasko), who developed the routes into Spain, and of Albert O. Hirschmann (Lucas Englander), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War on the anti-fascist side. With a caveat, though, that the Hirschmann in the series is blended with Raymond Couraud, a real-life Han Solo.

But the heart of Transatlantic, and our surrogate into the context, is Gillian Jacobs as the real-life Mary Jayne Gold, an American heiress who helped fund and coordinate the ERC’s operations. It is important we remember that Gillian Jacobs is a Julliard alumnus, a performer who we’ve been taking for granted just because Comedy has been her bread and butter. It is her mastery of goofball, bumbling but also very lonely characters that made her so perfectly suited for this one, her first major Drama role (that and the fact that she looks like a 1940s star). Mary Jane Gold, at the start of the series, is someone who is more idealistic and kind-hearted than competent for the complex task at heart (she, well, Britta’s some of the operations), but is someone who is desperate to do something more during the crisis than just being a financier. In the process, she will become an agent for British Intelligence, and will start a relationship with Albert (the real-life Mary Jane had a romance with Raymond Couraud). Jacobs, as always, manages a character that can be, at the same time, immature and clumsy, as it is world-weary and unrealized (the real-life Mary Jane was 30, a spinster at the time). Indeed, whenever Transatlantic fails at properly executing its ideas is when they fail to fully exploit Jacobs’ skills as playing the bumbling goofball. She better get an Emmy nod for this one.

Transatlantic is also refreshing in how it questions the narratives of US heroism during World War II, as it pointedly exposes the neutral cruelty with which the State Department refused to help refugees. Representing it is Corey Stoll as Graham Patterson, the US Consul in Marseille, who becomes as much of a foil to the ERC as the collaborationist French Police. The series goes one step further depicting how US corporations complied and collaborated with the Nazis, during those early years, and how well-connected, privileged WASPs like Patterson aided them.

Transatlantic is currently streaming on Netflix.

Alberto Cox says please stream Love, the series, if you want further proof that Gillian Jacobs is among the best actresses of her generation.