Berlinale 2022: 'Nelly & Nadine' is a Touching Doc Film About History
by Alex Billington
February 20, 2022
"Nothing is real until it’s socially expressed." Telling stories about people long gone can change the world. One of the best documentaries from the 2022 Berlin Film Festival is this discovery - Nelly & Nadine made by Swedish filmmaker Magnus Gertten. The film delves into World War II history to tell the story of two women who met at a concentration camp during the war and fell in love, spending their lives together in Venezuela after their camp was liberated. It's a remarkable story, not only that they could find each other and fall in love, but that they made it out alive and were able to live together after the war. It's a wonderfully touching film, sensitive and compassionate as it explores their story and connects with relatives that are still alive today. Even though it's far from perfect, there's no way this film won't move you to tears at some point or another. And these kind of films are the ones that will stay with you far beyond all the film festival buzz.
There are a growing number of documentaries being made recently based on a short reel of archival footage. In addition to Nelly & Nadine, there's also Three Minutes – A Lengthening (which just played at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival) examining barely three minutes of 1938 footage of Jewish inhabitants of a Polish town. Both films begin the same way - this footage is found & examined, but the filmmakers and historians need to figure out everything else. Who are these people, did they survive the war, how are they connected, are there any other important details hidden in the frames? This investigation is documented in both films, as they try to figure out who these people are and tell some of their stories. In the case of Nelly & Nadine, it's about two women - Nelly Mousset-Vos and Nadine Hwang. And the footage is of a boat arriving in Stockholm carrying women who had just been freed from the despicable Ravensbrück concentration camp.
While the film does meander at times and linger too long on certain shots or scenery, as is the case with way too many European documentaries, this doesn't really take away from the emotional experience and deeply moving discoveries made throughout. The big reveal, which is part of the marketing for the film anyway, is that these two women were lovers. Not only was this explicitly forbidden at the time, but it's especially rare that such love could blossom in the midst of a horrible time in human history. Nelly & Nadine tries to figure out exactly who these women were, and of course it's impossible to find an answer to every question about them. But after discovering a trove of footage shot by the two of them at their home in Venezuela after the war, the film offers viewers a chance to breathe a sigh of relief and appreciate their boundless passion – and recognize the fact that they ultimately did live on together after a brush with death living in the Nazi camps.
I'm sure they'd find it strange that anyone knows who they are almost 100 years later, and is writing about them and talking about them, but that's ultimately the point of this film. Telling their story is empowering. It's empowering because it proves that love can defeat any and everything, and love continues to influence and empower us forever and ever. No matter how many years after it was first cultivated. The ending of the film hits hardest - not only does it go for the powerful Portrait of a Lady on Fire finale involving music, but it goes even further to remind us that these women were awesome. They were heroic. They come across a big discovery about them that makes them certified badasses, and that is pretty much the cherry on top of an otherwise beautiful story about love and war. We may think stories like this end up lost forever in time, but when they resurface, and when they're told again, they can become the spark that reignites a passionate fire.