Saving Intellects From The Nazis

William Hurt and Julia Ormond in Varian's War
Varian Fry was an unlikely hero, a Harvard man with rich friends and a comfortable job; physically awkward, sexually ambiguous, born to be a dilettante.

But lightning strikes the oddest trees and struck Fry in Germany, in the late 1930s. He saw where the Nazis were headed, and did something heroic about it, personally saving more than 2,000 Jews, most of them intellectuals.

He will at last get his due in a docudrama, "Varian’s War," tonight (Sunday, April 22) on Showtime cable.

We meet William Hurt’s Varian in Berlin in 1938, where the pornography of swastikas sickens him. In occupied France, he is disdained by his own consulate but finally connects with the refugees he’s worried about.

More important, he gets help from Julia Ormond’s Miriam, whose sexuality unsettles him, and from Alan Arkin’s Frier, who can forge anything. The rest is a thriller: Meeting in a brothel. Hiding on a train. Pretending to be gay. And the long march of the difficult intellectuals over the mountains and into Spain.

The Leonard File
Read past reviews by John Leonard.
The artist Marc Chagall, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, and the novelist Heinrich Mann are only a few of the remarkable talents saved by the equally remarkable Fry. We are occasionally much better people than we ever imagined ourselves capable of being.

More often, we are worse.

Not many Varians show up NEXT Sunday night on public television, during Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman, mind-bending account of civil insurrection, "Twilight: Los Angeles."

Between news reel film clips of the L.A. riots that followed the acquittal of the cops who beat up Rodney King, Smith plays all the parts. She is a street kid, reminded of the movies. A painter, recalling the zoot-suit riots. Ex-police chief Daryl Gates. A burned-out Korean grocer. And NRA spokesman Charlton Heston. And, most astonishing, opera singer Jessye Norman.

"Twilight: Los Angeles" breaks the heart and hurts the head. For this public-television production of her stage play, Anna Deavere Smith went back to L.A. to interview the same people all over again, and they were even more depressed.

She is a chameleon, a shaman and an exorcist, but not a miracle-worker. She speaks in tongues, but who is listening?

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