For decades after the war, Marthe Huffnung Cohn, the subject of Nicola Alice Hens’s documentary Chichinette: The Accidental Spy, didn’t talk about her experience as a Holocaust survivor and Nazi fighter during World War II. “People want to talk about the future, not the past”, says the 90-something diminutive powerhouse of energy. It was only recently that she started touring around the world, talking about her role as part of the Intelligence Service for the French army, in helping shift the tide for Allied forces and rescuing at-risk Jews in and around Metz, France. Co-author of a book called Behind Enemy Lines: the True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany, Cohn retells parts her life leading up to the war, and honestly speaks about her feelings of guilt when her best friend and sister Stephanie was deported to Auschwitz and her husband was executed for working with the French Resistance.
In the film itself, director Hens presents Cohn and her story by following the heroine on her tireless schedule of speaking engagements, in which she is accompanied by her longtime husband, who lovingly lays out her many medals of honor before each talk. They navigate the experience of driving hours between events, staying in dodgy accommodations, fielding questions from impassioned historians and descendants of Holocaust victims, and visiting historic sites, all while Cohn slowly recounts her life story. It definitely starts slowly, and greatly depends on Cohn’s vivacity and doggedness to keep us engaged. There is, however, a steady climb until the last half hour of the film, which becomes as suspenseful as the climax of a war movie. How did she get the warning to soldiers who are ignorant of the Nazi ambush awaiting them in the Black Forest? She’ll tell you.
Chichinette, loosely translated from French, means “little pain in the neck”. In watching the film, we get a sense of Cohn’s tenacity and the independent thinking that guided her from an early age. She was clearly a feminist from childhood, if feminism means believing women can and should be allowed to do all the things men do. This woman, who not only stood up and fearlessly fought for herself and those around her, and has spoken about that choice in over 1000 talks around the world, is in every way inspirational, and there is something very moving about hearing about her life in her own words. To the question about what message she’d want to give young people, she answers, “Be engaged, and don’t accept any order that your conscience would not approve.” These are words she has lived by her whole life, and advice we should all integrate into our own lives, and right now.
3 1/2 out of 5 stars