Magnus Gertten’s documentary Nelly & Nadine tells a story so improbable you could be forgiven for wondering if it really happened. But it did, and the fact that it did is a testimony to the ability of human beings to carve out an existence for themselves even in circumstances in which just about everything is against them.
Nadine Hwang was the daughter of a Chinese diplomat who worked as a chauffeur and secretary in Paris for Natalie Clifford Barney, an American writer who hosted a famous literary salon attended by the likes of Radclyffe Hall, Isadora Duncan, and Gertrude Stein. When World War II broke out, she moved to a small town near the Spanish border and, while not part of a formal resistance organization, is believed to have help people escape across the border.
Hwang was arrested and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1944, where she met Nelly Mousset-Vos, a professional opera singer and member of the French Resistance. The two fell in love, were separated when Nelly was sent to the notorious Austrian camp of Mauthausen, survived to be liberated from their camps at the end of the war, were re-united, and found their way to Caracas, Venezuela, where they built a new life for themselves (Nadine worked at a bank, Nelly at the French embassy).
Gertten reconstructs their story through archival materials, primarily a collection of letters, photographs, and 16mm home movies stored in the attic of Nelly’s granddaughter Sylvie Bianchi (Nadine is first seen in archival footage of a boat load of camp survivors brought to Sweden after the war). Sylvie is also part of the story: she recalls childhood visits to her grandmother in Venezuela and being aware that she had been in the camps. She was also aware that her grandmother lived with a woman, but because her own mother treated the topic of Nadine as taboo, Sylvie never knew the nature of their relationship.
We learn the story of Nadine and Nelly through Sylvie’s eyes. When she does begin to go through the boxes and trunks of materials stored in her attic and researches some of the other people featured in Nadine’s photos and films, she discovers a society of women, including her grandmother and Nadine, previously unknown to her. Excluded from the male literary establishment, Barney created her own literary world in France, honoring the achievements of women writers (although plenty of men also attended her salon). Not surprisingly, some of those women fell in love with each other, and carved out an existence for themselves, unacknowledged by society at large, as gay and lesbian people have done in many times and places.
Excerpts from the diary Nelly kept in Ravensbrück are accompanied by black and white photographs and cinematography, contrasting with the color of the present-day sections and of Nadine’s 16mm movies. Nelly’s writing illuminates the harshness of camp life as well as her feelings for Nadine, which were clearly romantic. The photographs and home movies also reveal the vibrant social life enjoyed by Nelly and Nadine in Caracas, who clearly found their tribe and lived their lives to the hilt. Ultimately, Nelly & Nadine tells the story not just of one couple who created a life for themselves against all odds, but of a whole community that thrived despite being deemed unacceptable by the society in which they lived. | Sarah Boslaugh
Nelly & Nadine will be screened in-person at Silas Theatre at the School for the Visual Arts in New York City on Oct. 18 and is available for remote streaming during the 34th Annual NewFest, Oct. 13-25. More information about film programs, special events, and passes and tickets is available from the festival web site.