This is the third and latest in Magnus Gertten’s documentary series based on an extraordinary piece of footage showing the arrival by boat of women liberated from WWII concentration camps. Captivated by the array of often-jubilant faces, Gertten has based each of his films on the life of a woman who could be identified.
He begins Nelly & Nadine (★★★★★, Critic’s Pick) with this archive footage and — suffice to say — it’s easy to see why he found it so compelling. This time, he waits until the camera settles on one woman who — unlike her compatriots — stares intently and unsmilingly into the camera. This, we learn, is Nadine. And so begins her story.
This is most certainly a story of the Holocaust, but it is also a story of family — its strengths, but also the ties that do not always bind and the truths that are not always named.
The narrative begins with Sylvia, the middle-aged granddaughter of Nelly Mousset Vos, a well-known opera singer before World War II. Sylvia has inherited a trove of Nelly’s diaries, papers and photos which, until now, she has been too emotional to explore.
Cleverly, Gertten allows us to learn Nelly’s story along with Sylvia as she first reads Nelly’s written accounts and later widens her investigation into her grandmother’s life. It isn’t long before Sylvia is acknowledging an open family secret: after marriage and two children, Nelly found love with a woman named Nadine.
The other revelation here is just how hard it is to face humanity’s horrors. Sylvia can barely bring herself to learn how terrible the Holocaust was for Nelly. Gertten acknowledges the universality of this dread in his careful pacing of the story.
Of course, there is no way to document the Holocaust without referencing its horrors, but this is still, ultimately, a love story, and Gertten crafts the necessary balance. Where he might have shared graphic imagery, he instead has an actor read Nelly’s accounts of her time in the camps while the camera lingers over haunting black-and-white images of landscapes suggestive of time and place.
Paired with the film’s atmospheric music, the mood is desolate and melancholy, attractively reminiscent of the contemplations in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire. Death is everywhere, but the question here is whether the soul will die, too.
The other challenge is in simultaneously telling stories past and present, and Gertten also gets this right, weaving them together seamlessly and giving each their due. If anything doesn’t quite work, it’s perhaps a bit too much time spent lingering on Sylvia’s life in the French countryside and her silent adoration of Nelly’s singing, which can feel contrived.
Missing also is a deeper exploration of what happened to Nelly’s relationship with her children, including Sylvia’s mother. Was it trauma that broke these bonds or something more endemic to Nelly?
Still, there’s a lot of ground to cover here and Gertten gets to most of the big questions through carefully edited and arranged interviews and recollections. He does a nice job of showing how Nelly and Nadine’s story ends, bringing as much drama and emotion as one can muster through relics of the past. It certainly helps that he accompanies the closing images with an aria sung by Nelly in the camps, one that ensures there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
Nadine & Nelly screens at Landmark’s E Street Cinema, 555 11th St. NW, on Friday, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m. and is available in the virtual festival. Tickets are $15 at the door. Click here for more details about passes and virtual access in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia region.
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