The story of American Varian Fry, who at great risk to his own life, traveled to Marseilles in 1940 to rescue prominent European artists as well as 2,000 others from Nazi persecution. He built, on his own and without the help of the U.S. government, an elaborate rescue network that managed to save some of the most influential cultural figures of our age -- artists, writers and scientists. Fry travels to Berlin as a jounalist in the 1930's, and is sickened by the atrocities he witnesses against the Jewish community during the street progroms. He becomes driven to fight against the Nazi brutality, recognizing that action must be taken if Jews, artists, intellectuals and their heritage -- what he calls "the soul of Europe" -- are to be preserved.
Fry, who grew up in New York and was educated at Harvard, stands alone in his politically neutral homeland. Most Americans do not yet see the sweeping threat he knows exists, so he must forge his own path in accordance with his conscience. With the help of his influential friends and newly-Arrived European refugees, including novelist Thomas Mann, he forms the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). Fry is able to raise funds for the ERC with the hopes of liberating the intellectuals of Europe from the tyranny of Nazi terror, as they are the ones who are sure to be incarcerated and, ultimately destroyed.
Varian visits First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to gain her approval for his idea and to enlist her help with the U.S. State Department to ensure that the political refugees will be granted the proper documents needed to enter the U.S legally. She warns him of the grim realities he will face in Nazi-occupied France, but Fry is determined.
Varian travels alone to Marseilles to begin the rescue mission and carries with him a list of artists who are his top priority. After he takes up residence at the Hotel Splendide, he meets Harry Bingham and his superior Jamison of the U.S. Consulate in France. The Consul shows little concern for the refugees. Bingham, on the other hand, is secretly housing some of the most influential cultural figures of the 20th century (many who are on Fry's list), such as painter Marc Chagall, political writer Hannah Arendt, novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, historical writer Heinrich Mann, novelist Franz Werfel, and his wife Alma, who secretly possesses original manuscripts written by her former husband Gustav Mahler.
Though he works in a bureaucratic environment that does not support his views, Bingham recognizes the necessity to save the lives of these victims of persecution. He arranges for Miriam Davenport to work with Varian. Miriam is a courageous and spirited woman who also feels this mission to be of utmost importance. Albert Hirschman, a refugee whom Fry renames Beamish, joins the cause as well,
Beamish takes them to a brothel to discuss their plans, since he knows officials will not question what the ERC are doing there for fear of implicating themselves. Inside the brothel, the ERC finds Freier, also a refugee and a cartoonist, who will supply false passports. Freier claims the only joy he has left in life comes from deceiving the Nazis. With Freier's assistance, the ERC will now have the documents needed to transport the refugees across the border, as securing exit visas for them would be impossible. Another problem Fry encounters is having the sufficient funds. Varian has money at home in America; however, due to the political situation, it is no longer possible to import and exchange it into French currency. To overcome this problem, Varian and Beamish meet with Marcello, the boss of a criminal gang who agrees to supply the necessary money in French francs.
Fry's committee establishes a legal rescue service that provides a front for the undercover illegal operation of smuggling refugees and French citizens out of the country. Vichy Colonel Yves Joubert and Nazi SS Officer Marius Franken are highly suspicious of Varian's legitimate American help center, but do not intervene; continuing only to observe Varian's actions. Fry is even invited to the German Consulate for dinner, where he is warned of the risks of unlawful conduct. Fry decides to mislead them about his true intentions by acting flamboyent and naive, leading them to believe that he may be gay and should not be considered dangerous.
French officals have now begun their seizure of the innocent. Those arrested, including Marc Chagall, are deemed degenerates and are rounded up, to be disposed of in concentration camps. Varian bravely goes to the police station and cleverly convinces the officials to release Chagall before he is transported to a concentration camp. Miriam is enamored by his heroic action, but Fry discourages her sexual advances.
When the time comes to transport those who are to be saved, it is decided that reaching the Spanish border -- the link to crossing the Atlantic to America and to freedom -- must be accomplished across the mountains by foot. Although a dif