Two Harvard Grads, Two WWII Stories, in A Twentieth Century Tale


A brief, loose, and rather meager addition to the swaying pile of WWII-ephemera documentaries, Richard Kaplan’s A 20th Century Tale parallels the respective fates of two Harvard graduates during wartime. One, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, was deemed qualifiedwby his part–American heritage and Ivy League education to act as Adolf Hitler’s Foreign Press Bureau chief but fell out with Nazi brass, defecting in 1937 to spend the war years telling what he knew to American intelligence. The other, Varian Fry, was a classics scholar-turned-foreign correspondent who reported on anti-Semitic violence in Hitler’s Germany well ahead of the pack. Tale concentrates mostly on Fry’s 1940-41 stay in Marseilles, during which he arranged for the escape of refugees from occupied Vichy France, often in the teeth of state department resistance. Kaplan’s biographical diptych is made up of recited excerpts from letters and memoirs, stock footage, and talking heads who recount, among other things, the period in which Fry’s headquarters became a bohemian salon. While emphasizing his subjects’ shared alma mater and single professional meeting, Kaplan doesn’t locate any telling contrasts by pairing these personalities. This is what comes of dumping material on a viewer, rather than arranging it.