This year brought several WWII documentaries that took their inspiration from images in old footage, including “Three Minutes: A Lengthening” and “From Where They Stood.” The latest of these, Magnus Gertten’s “Nelly & Nadine,” makes outstanding use of this compelling approach.
Gertten has actually already employed this method, with his 2015 film “Every Face Has a Name.” His intention then was to identify as many people as possible in footage of survivors who arrived in Sweden on April 28, 1945. One of them was Nadine Hwang, though nothing else was known about her. During a screening of the film, Gertten was approached by a French farmer named Sylvie Bianchi, who told him that Hwang was her grandmother’s secret lover.
The story only gets more astonishing from there. Bianchi’s grandmother, Nelly, was once a celebrated Belgian singer who worked as a member of the Resistance. She was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and deported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. On Christmas of 1944, she sang for some of her fellow prisoners, including an instantly smitten Nadine.
They fell in love over the next two months, after which Nelly was sent to the Mauthausen camp, which she described in her diary as “the antechamber to hell.” Nadine was rescued by the Swiss Red Cross a few months later, and the women had no way to reconnect.
Until they did.
Gertten tracks their entire story — which spans decades and continents — primarily through Nelly’s words and Nadine’s images. The former kept a detailed and strikingly poetic journal during the war, which is narrated by Belgian actress Anne Coesens over exquisitely-chosen footage shot by filmmaker Henri Storck in 1943. And Nadine captured their later years in home movies that offer a remarkable glimpse of gay life in mid-century South America.
This does mean, unfortunately, that we learn far more of Nelly’s experience than Nadine’s. However, Gertten does his best to fill in the copious blanks regarding the latter — who was, if anything, the more fascinating of two extraordinary women.
We do learn, thanks to historian Joan Schenker, that Nadine was the daughter of a Chinese diplomat as well as assistant to (and lover of) iconic lesbian author and salonist Natalie Barney. We can tell just from the little discovered here that Nadine’s life alone is worthy of its own biography. But together, the couple’s story unfolds into one stunning revelation after another. (Surely there’s an enterprising producer out there working on securing rights for a biopic.)
If Gertten has done his best with very little information on Nadine’s side, he has overachieved with the resources available from Nelly’s. Every element, from historical footage to contemporary interviews, is handled with artistry, thought and care. (This includes Marthe Belsvik Stavrum’s lovely, spare score.) The scenes in which a visibly emotional Bianchi discovers the depths of her grandmother’s hidden existence are as moving as the ones in which the couple’s aged friends evocatively recall lifelong intimacies.
The fact that Gertten was able to tease so much out of a single initial image is an accomplishment of such magnitude that it feels almost surreal. Indeed, the next time you look at any old footage, you’re likely to think back to this film and wonder at the names behind the faces. In Gertten’s hands, “Nelly & Nadine” isn’t just a war movie but also a touching family history, an unforgettable romance and, above all, a magnificent tribute to the power of persistence in art, life and love.
“Nelly & Nadine” opens in NYC Dec. 16 via Wolfe.