Nelly & Nadine
(Sweden/Belgium/Norway, 92 min)
Dir: Magnus Gertten
Program: World Showcase
Two women fall in love in a concentration camp. It’s a powerful premise and launch point for this layered documentary about resilience, queer life in the ‘40s and the surprising ways lesbian passion can inspire a whole new generation.
The film begins with archival footage of women survivors arriving from a concentration camp by boat to Sweden. Director Magnus Gertten has been near-obsessed with this footage since 2007 and incorporated the images, expertly shot and lingering on every face, into two documentaries he’d hoped would inspire viewers to identify the survivors. Before screening Every Face Has a Name, his second film exploring this theme, he was approached by Sylvie and her husband, who said they knew the story of Nadine Hwang, one of the women. Hwang had been lovers with Sylvie’s grandmother Nelly, whom she met in the Ravensbruck concentration camp. The daughter of a diplomat, Hwang was arrested for assisting people fleeing the Nazis and classical singer Nelly caught the SS’s attention as an agent carrying documents while on tour.
Sylvie had possession of an unopened box, a treasure trove of material which they suspected would shed light on the two women’s story. In the film’s central thread, Gertten tracks Sylvie as she, with many trepidations–her family never talked about the war, concentration camps and certainly not a lesbian relationship–unpacks Nelly’s box of material, discovering more about the two women she had been visiting in Venezuela since she was four.
Inside the box are photographs, notes and letters–many of them passionately declaring her love for Nadine–and Nelly’s handwritten diary of her experiences inside Ravensbruck. The focus though is not on the horrors of the camp, though they are referenced, but on the women’s relationship.
The discovery of this long-hidden family secret spurs Sylvie to find out more. In America, literary biographer Joan Schenkar shows her old movies–more documentary gold–of Nadine while a fixture at Natalie Barney’s literary salon in Paris. In another thread, an old friend of Nelly and Nadine shows home movies of them, and other gay couples filmed in the ‘40s, after the two women had moved to Caracas where they hoped they could live together more freely. Woven through are readings of Nelly’s Ravensbruck diaries.
There are many other wonders here: a young woman’s expression of how learning the story has inspired her to come out; Sylvie’s obvious love for her grandmother and most important, the power of the love between the two women. Near the end a reading from Nelly’s diary about how Nadine makes her feel will take your breath away.
In Venezuela, the couple typed out the handwritten diary and tried to get it published but couldn’t find someone willing to commit. Kudos to Gertten for finally telling this story.
Note please: stay through the credits. The final song by Nina Simone is a knockout.
Nelly & Nadine premieres at Hot Docs on April 30.