During this chaotic time of near-constant political upheaval, we need all the heroes we can get. Thanks to documentary filmmaker Nicola Alice Hens, we meet one in the unlikely form of a tiny yet feisty 96-year-old German-born Jewish woman named Marthe Cohn who managed to change the course of World War II by working for the French Resistance and saving the lives of countless Allied soldiers as the conflict came to a close.
Chinchinette: The Accidental Spy starts off as a travelogue as we accompany Marthe and her husband Major as they leave their home in the Los Angeles suburbs and head to Europe so she can do a series of lectures and Q & A sessions. We learn the nickname in the title – which translates to “little pain in the neck” — was given to her by those she worked with during the war.
The doc dawdles a bit too much over mundane matters such as the couple washing clothes at laundromat and picking up rental cars while being on the road. But Hens and her team make the most of tracing Marthe’s past as they go to Paris and other sites in the countryside where her amazing story played out.
The films is most compelling when its subject narrates her own personal history, whether speaking to the camera, talking to audiences or doing voiceovers while an animated figure sometimes acts out a scene. Basically, her knowledge of both German and French became the key to her surviving the war as well as well as being qualified for espionage missions. That she was a trained nurse also came in handy. But her need to save others was mainly inspired by what happened to the man she loved and her sister who she adored who both sacrificed their lives.
The anecdotal details of how the bright and resourceful Marthe (pronounced “Mart”) became an unlikely spy and how she deservedly won countless medals and honors is saved for the final third of the doc. It’s best left to her to reveal all the amazing details and not spoil it. My favorite moment, however, arrives early when she tells the young people attending one of her talks: “Be engaged and don’t accept any order that your conscience would not approve.” Amen to that.