In newsreel footage of concentration camp survivors, director Magnus Gertten spots a solemn face in the crowd; while the other women cheer and wave for the cameras, she only stares, wondering if her lover Nelly has survived.
That stare belongs to Nadine Hwang, once daughter of the Chinese ambassador in Spain, imprisoned by the Nazis for helping people flee their regime through the Pyrenees. In Ravensbrück concentration camp, the most impossible of places, something remarkable happens. She falls in love, on Christmas Day, with Nelly Mousset-Vos, an opera singer and spy captured for resisting the Nazis. Inspired by the discovery of this newsreel footage, Gertten sets about painstakingly uncovering the history of these two women with the help of Nelly’s granddaughter Sylvie, who has never been able to face reading her grandmother’s diaries. For that reason, she also never realised her grandmother was gay.
Laid alongside Sylvie’s struggle to confront her grandmother’s traumatic past are extracts from Nelly’s beautifully written memoirs: how she was an opera singer on tour when she was arrested by the SS; how she sang in Ravensbrück in exchange for cabbage and carrots from the guards, and how on Christmas day she went carolling to the French prisoners, and there met Nadine, her ‘Butterfly’.
She found solace in Nadine’s arms, then one cold morning Nelly was dragged away from Ravensbrück and sent to a camp she calls ‘the tomb’, where the prisoners are forced to quarry stone in the freezing cold up 186 sheer steps. The memory of Nadine sustains her, and the hope of seeing her again very literally keeps her alive.
These extracts are accompanied by what Gertten calls a “poetic archive layer” of stunning documentary footage of 1940s countryside taken from Henri Storck’s Symphonie Paysanne. They show wheat dancing, streams coiling, and snow dusting the trees in winter like icing sugar. They would be beautiful, almost like a Tarkovsky film, but for the dull roar in the expertly crafted soundtrack that renders them sinister, and recalls the devastating atrocities occurring in these very same landscapes. The frightening, droning soundscape during Nelly’s description of the camps is contrasted with a majestic original score by Marthe Belsvik Stavrum during Sylvie’s exploration of her grandmother’s past.
This is a carefully researched film, and it shows, containing a wealth of Super 8 reels, photographs, and memoirs. In an era of mass-produced true crime Netflix documentaries churned out on a production line, Nelly & Nadine is that endangered creature so rarely found anymore: documentary as slow art, documentary as poetry. Gertten’s film is not salacious, it is not exploitative. It is a love story that has sat untold for more than 50 years, and by some miracle is now finally seeing the light of day.
If there was any criticism to make of the film, it’s a shame it didn’t include more of Nelly’s writing. But perhaps, now that her manuscript has been uncovered, it will finally be published as she and Nadine had intended. At a Q&A after the film’s Scottish premiere, Gertten explains that “these stories you find in the darkness, it’s our job to bring them out.” It is a great responsibility he has taken on. No-one was ready to hear Nelly and Nadine’s story in their time, but not only have Gertten and Sylvie brought their history into the light, they have done so in a way that would make Nelly and Nadine proud.
Nelly & Nadine is an important film, first because the lives of queer people so often go undocumented in our popular histories. But it is also a rare and precious documentary film, carefully executed, well researched, respectful, and above all beautiful.
Words by Eli Dolliver
This film was screened as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. You can find the rest of our coverage here.
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