Complex fight for freedom

Preview: In `Varian's War,' an American helps Jewish intellectuals escape Nazi Europe.

April 21, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Showtime is promoting "Varian's War," its new film about an American intellectual who saves Jewish intellectuals from Hitler's Europe, as "the true story of the American Schindler." Given the immense popularity and revered status of "Schindler's List," who can blame Showtime for trying to forge that link in viewers' minds?

But in some ways (and I know some readers are never going to believe me), "Varian's War" is a more interesting and enlightened film than "Schindler." The more interesting part involves a fascinatingly quirky and cerebral lead performance by William Hurt as Varian Fry, an American magazine editor appalled by Nazi barbarism who decides to do something about it at a time when much of the rest of America looked the other way during the late 1930s.

The more enlightened part involves the depiction of Jews in "Varian's War." Admittedly, this is another version of the oft-told narrative of a gentile saving Jews, and what the media need to start doing is telling more stories about Jewish heroes who saved Jews. There are many of those stories to be told, like that of journalist Ruth Gruber, which powered the miniseries "Haven" on CBS in February.

But what's important about the Jewish characters in "Varian's War" is that they are not depicted one-dimensionally as victims and objects of pity. The Jews here, who range from painter Marc Chagall (Joel Miller) to writer Hannah Arendt (Elyzabeth Walling), are highly individualistic and, in a couple of cases, even a little abrasive in their opinions and intellectual snobbery.

In this regard, Lynn Redgrave turns in a superb supporting performance as Alma Werfel, wife of novelist Franz Werfel (Vlasta Vrana) and ex-wife of composer Gustav Mahler. It is Alma Werfel's tone of superiority, coupled with great courage, that allow her to smuggle Mahler's music out of France right under Nazi noses. In doing so, though, she is flouting the ground rules of escape laid down by Fry, her "savior," and endangering the entire group of refugees. This is a movie comfortable with ambiguity of character and action.

There are several fine supporting performances, including one by Alan Arkin as a cartoonist living in Marseille who forges documents for the refugees.

The finest supporting turn, though, is that of Julia Ormond, whose character humanizes Fry and sets the great-escape plot into motion.

Like Arkin and Redgrave, Ormond is a major talent. While American audiences might best know her as Sabrina in the remake of that classic, she is absolutely stunning in the "Masterpiece Theatre" British miniseries "Traffik," on which the vastly inferior Hollywood film that won several Oscars last month is based.

"Varian's War" is knee-deep in major talent behind the camera, too. Barbra Streisand is executive producer. Lionel Chetwynd, whose distinguished career stretches from writing the screenplay for "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" to writing and directing the GE Theatre presentation of "To Heal a Nation," is the writer and director.

Chetwynd takes the time early on to let us get a good long look at Fry, and this is important because he is a not a character who is easy to like. In fact, in less talented hands than those of Chetwynd and Hurt, Fry might be inaccessible to a mainstream audience.

But Hurt plays Fry as a man who seems more engaged in a private dialogue with his inner self than with the outside world, and it makes the character fascinating. You want to know what makes him tick. And once Chetwynd moves Fry to Nazi-occupied Marseille, you are on the edge of your seat wondering how this intellectual who seems tailor-made for the role of an absent-minded professor is going to beat the Nazis and smuggle these towering figures of European culture to safety.

It is no secret that Showtime desperately wants to be thought of as an equal of HBO when it comes to being a maker of the very best made-for-TV movies. A few more productions like "Varian's War," and Showtime might just make it.

`Varian's War'

When: Tomorrow night at 8

Where: Showtime

In brief: A taut and generally enlightened telling of Jewish rescue in Hitler's Europe.

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