Magnus Gertten’s film of forbidden love, Nelly & Nadine, is a deeply-layered and skilfully crafted detective story that sweeps a viewer with waves of emotion.
The unlikely story of a life-long love affair between the daughter of a Chinese diplomat and Belgian opera singer who both found themselves imprisoned in Ravensbrück – the notorious Nazi concentration camp used exclusively for female, mostly political prisoners – emerged from research the director conducted on archive film footage of camp survivors arriving on a Red Cross boat in Malmö, Sweden, in April 1945.
A remarkable stopry
The cinematic-quality footage of women only recently released from the clutches of death – some confused, some smiling, most beginning to gain some weight and humanity in their faces – provided the grounds for identifying a number of them.
One face stands out: the inscrutable visage of Nadine Hwang, a 43-year-old Chinese woman who was the daughter of a Chinese diplomat stationed in Spain before the war. Nadine returns the camera’s eye with a steely-eyed glaze that gives little way. It was, however, enough for the director and an admirable research team to pick up on and pull on a string that reveals a remarkable story.
Although never part of a formal partisan force, Nadine – who was living in France when war broke out and had been part of a prominent lesbian literary salon set – was arrested and sent to Ravensbrück in May 1944 for helping people escape to Spain over the Pyrenees.
Nelly Mousset-Vos had been more formally involved in an anti-Nazi cell and was arrested in Paris besides the statue of Molière in April 1943. A famous opera singer, while incarcerated in the camp, she had performed in Christmas plays and once was given some fresh vegetables by a German guard who asked his «nightingale» to sing for him.
Apart from the seemingly indefatigable ability of World War Two to continue to throw up incredible, previously untold stories, Gertten’s approach to the material offers a very personal way in for any viewer with relatives who were affected by the war.
…Gertten’s approach to the material offers a very personal way in for any viewer with relatives who were affected by the war.
The film focuses on an archive of material – letters, documents, photographs, and cinefilm – that Nelly’s granddaughter Sylvie Bianchi has had in storage since her grandmother died in 1987.
The tin trunks and boxes of ephemera have been hidden away in the attic of Sylvie’s French farmhouse. This is where Gertten picks up his detective story, closely observing Sylvie as she finally finds the courage she has lacked for more than 30 years to go through the boxes of a grandmother she was very close to.
At times sifting the paper detritus of history is too much for Sylvie – she chokes up, switches from French to English in an unconscious attempt to create more distance, and puts the memories to one side.
What emerges is a story that any of us may have lurking in dusty corners of attics and basements; like Sylvie, I, too, have a trove of 1940s ephemera: fragile pages of wartime letters sent to my mother from relatives during the Blitz while she was evacuated in the English countryside far from London.
Sylvie grew up with frequent visits to her grandmother in Venezuela – where, reunited with Nadine after the war, she lived and worked until Nadine died in 1972.
The granddaughter never thought much of the two women living together; to their friends and employers, they passed themselves off as cousins, though they did have some close male homosexual friends who knew their secret.
The archive materials, the films shot in Caracas, the letters and post-war documentation confirming Nelly’s courageous service in the Maquis and her imprisonment in both Ravensbrück and Mauthausen, a notorious Austrian camp located in a quarry where prisoners were worked to death, allow a story of such depth and detail to emerge that one wonders how the director managed to contain it all in 90 minutes.
The pain sensed in Nadine’s eyes in the 1945 footage from Malmö is revealed as the terror that she will never see Nelly again: they had been separated when Nelly was sent to Mauthausen. It would be 1947, before they were reunited and later left for Venezuela.
Nadine, always a photographer, documented post-war life in 16mm colour home movies revealing her deep love for Nelly.
With contributions from one of the survivors of Ravensbrück – Irene Krausz-Fainman – and references to others, it is clear that the director had material even more extensive than that which he is able to show in Nelly & Nadine.
This sensitive story deserves a wide audience, and perhaps, a publisher may finally pick up a joint memoir written by Nelly and Nadine in the 1950s that failed to find a publisher at the time.