You might want to think twice the next time you offer to help a little old lady cross the street. Not only might she not need the assistance, but she may actually be tougher than you. She may even have been a spy working for the French Resistance during World War II.
That’s the case with the central figure in Nicola Alice Hens’ documentary, Marthe Cohn, 96 years old at the time of filming, who travels the globe recounting the wartime experiences she hadn’t discussed publicly until the release of her 2002 book Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany. Her fascinating story, told in Chichinette: The Accidental Spy, proves once again that truth can sometimes be more compelling than even the most carefully plotted fiction.
The film could almost be described as a travelogue, since it follows Marthe and her husband Major as they leave their comfortable home in a Los Angeles suburb and travel throughout Europe, where she gives lectures and conducts Q&A sessions about her wartime exploits. The couple doesn’t exactly travel first-class, as evidenced by a scene in which they do their own laundry in a laundromat, with Marthe carefully folding the clothes.
Cannily withholding most of the details of Marthe’s story until the final act, the documentary at first concentrates on her indomitable spirit and infectious personality. She’s still sharp as a tack; when asked how she feels about the lack of female names on memorials dedicated to those who died serving in the Resistance, she jokingly replies, “A ‘memorial to the dead’ can’t have my name. After all, I’m not dead!” Later, when discussing the physical strain of traveling so extensively at her age, Marthe blithely mentions that she has insurance to fly her body back to America if she dies during a trip.
Chichinette, whose title stems from the affectionate nickname given to Marthe by colleagues during the war (the English translation is “little pain in the neck”), concentrates a tad too much on the details of the couple’s day-to-day lives while traveling. There are far too many scenes of them engaging in such mundane activities as packing their suitcases and getting stuck in traffic, as if the filmmaker was desperate to stretch out the material to feature length.
It’s when Marthe tells her story — either to her live audiences, in voiceover narration or directly to the camera — that the doc proves most compelling. When she was a teenager, her family moved to Poitiers, France, which was eventually occupied by the Germans. Her older sister was later arrested and died in Auschwitz. Marthe fell in love with a dashing young man who promised to convert to Judaism so they could get married, but he joined the Resistance and was captured and executed by the Nazis. She learned about his death via a newspaper article.
Working as a nurse in Paris during the final days of the war, Marthe volunteered to serve in the Resistance but was rejected. Barely 5 feet tall, she was told that she “looked like a little girl.” But her blonde hair and ability to speak fluent German led to her being accepted by the French Army, and soon she was repeatedly sneaking in and out of Germany and reporting on troop activities. For her services, Marthe won numerous decorations, which she proudly wears at commemorative events: “I’m the medal bearer,” her husband jokes. Her dramatic account is augmented by archival footage and photographs, and occasionally crude but effective animation.
This is a powerful story that deserves to be told — even if it’s rendered in sometimes less than cinematically compelling terms. And at this point in the twilight of her life, Marthe Cohn deserves every accolade that comes her way.
Production companies: Merovee Films, DFFB, RBB
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Director: Nicola Alice Hens
Producer: Amos Geva
Executive producers: Michael Potter, Gail Schorsch, Jonathan Schorsch
Directors of photography: Nicola Alice Hens, Gaetan Varone
Music: Raphael Bigaud, Vincent David
Editor: Michele Barbin