Netflix’s Transatlantic is great consumer surplus for those interested in migration

Published 21 April 2023 / By Carlos Vargas-Silva

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Consumer surplus is an economic concept that describes the difference between the price consumers pay for something and the price they are willing to pay. For example, let us say you bought an avocado for £3 but were expecting and willing to pay £5. The £2 that you saved represents your consumer surplus.

Netflix has a new series titled Transatlantic: “Two Americans and their allies form a scrappy rescue operation in 1940 Marseilles to help artists, writers and other refugees fleeing Europe during WWII.” It is the story of the Emergency Rescue Committee, a predecessor of the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

As someone who has followed the work of the IRC for a long time, the description of Transatlantic caught my attention right away, and I decided to watch it. I was expecting a technical (tedious?) seven-part docuseries about the organisation. The kind of thing that you typically watch for work rather than for fun. Watching the seven-hour programme is the “price” you pay for absorbing important information related to your research. I was expecting to pay a high price.

I had been experiencing jet lag, so I started watching Transatlantic at 10 pm, thinking it would help me sleep. The reality was very different. Transatlantic is an engaging series with good acting and entertaining plot twists. To my surprise, one of the protagonists is Albert Hirschman, an economist who later became a professor at Harvard and Princeton, among other elite institutions. I remember his writings on economic development in Latin America from my time as an undergraduate student but never realised his crucial role in smuggling refugees from France to the United States.

However, Hirschman is not the only famous character to appear in Transatlantic. In the series, there is a rundown chateau on the outskirts of Marseille which is full of famous personalities, including philosopher Walter Benjamin, painter Max Ernst, writer Andre Berton, activist Lisa Fittko, and many more.

Like most series based on “real” events, much of what takes place in Transatlantic is fiction and is presented in a way that appeals to a broader audience. There are romances, parties and a lot of nostalgia. By the end of the series, at around 4 am, I was very satisfied with my consumer surplus. Still, I had to spend another hour checking facts online to get a deeper picture, even if I dreaded going to work that morning without any sleep.

Yet, even if somewhat superficial at times, Transatlantic does provide a valuable story to reflect on issues of visas, migration policy, citizenship removal, smuggling, fake documentation, asylum, deportations, detention, irregularity, family migration, etc. Moreover, many of the challenges faced by those trying to provide an exit route from France during World War II will be familiar to those doing the same in today’s conflicts around the world.

I recommend the series to anyone interested in these topics. Just do not start watching at 10 pm …


* Header image: Marseille 1955 © Britt-Marie Sohlström (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

A black & white view of Boulevard d'Athenes, Marseilles (with the Hotel Splendide in the right-hand foreground) taken in 1955.