“Nelly and Nadine” is a Belgian/Swiss/Swedish documentary and is one of 13 films on the short list for the best film for the 2022 European Film Awards that will be announced in Reykjavik on December 10th.
The documentary begins with the narrator commenting on a film reel shot on April 28, 1945, in Malmo Sweden filming a boatload of 2,000 women survivors arriving from German concentration camps. The narrator explains he has spent years tracking down the stories of the survivors on the film reel. He is on a voyage of discovery.
One of the women on the film reel is Nadine a Chinese woman who was the daughter of the Chinese ambassador to Spain. We are not told why she was imprisoned by the Germans. Nelly was a well-known French singer arrested in 1943 by the Germans in Paris.
Nelly’s granddaughter Sylvie Bianchi lives a quiet agricultural life in Belgium. Sylvie has a large collection of letters, journals and super 8 films documenting the incarceration of Nelly in a series of worsening German concentration camps the last stop being Mauthausen in 1945 Austria a stone quarry where prisoners had to climb down and up 186 stairs of death after debilitating forced labour and very little food.
Understandably Sylvie simply can’t complete the review of her grandmother’s legacy. She is so traumatized she can’t complete the task. She finally decides it is time and what she discovers liberates her tortured soul so finally she is at peace and with understanding of her secretive grandmother.
By confronting reality she accepts it and understands who her grandmother was. Her grandmother was Nelly Mousset-Vos a renowned singer and also a member of the Resistance. And she and Nadine were lovers! They fell in love in a camp and were separated when Nelly was transported in a harrowing 1945 journey to Mauthausen packed in a cattle car where 17 women died in a five-day journey.
We listen to some of her memoirs describing despair and the horrid conditions she managed to survive and it was her love for Nadine that propelled her last reserves of energy at Mauthausen where falling down in exhaustion meant a bullet in the head. Many of us are familiar with these German barbarities but to hear it firsthand is painful and very personal.
So we move beyond the war and Nadine and Nelly wishing to escape Europe move to Venezuela to establish a life. Sylvie as a child had no idea Nadine and Nelly were lesbians but it becomes apparent to her, particularly through the Super 8 films that Nelly and Nadine were lesbians.
Sylvie’s journey of discovery is one that viewers can share and there is no need to repeat it. But perhaps more important is that by accepting the facts of Nelly’s and Nadine’s relationship and fully understanding what they went through liberates Sylvie from her fear and apprehension so that she finally accepts and embraces her grandmother to the extent she finally smiles and appreciates Nelly and Nadine. Accepting reality as opposed to ignoring it was the best way of honouring the fortitude and bravery of Nelly. The narrator that started the film was on a voyage of self discovery as Sylvie was.
You can see the trailer here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0X0gP2zxv8
The film has English subtitles.
Directed by Magnus Gertten.
RKS Film Rating 88/100.