Telling your story — bearing witness to your own life and those of the people you’ve loved (and lost) — is one of the most powerful things someone can do, especially when they’ve lived through historic events. But it’s not always easy, as we learn from watching Nicola Hens’ engaging documentary Chichinette: The Accidental Spy about former WWII spy Marthe Cohn, who, now nearly 100 years old, still travels the world sharing her experiences with others.
Born into a family of Orthodox Jews in Metz, France, in 1920, Cohn (nee Hoffnung) was a young woman in love when the Nazis invaded France. Chaos, fear, and separation from loved ones marked her wartime experience, as it did for many Europeans during that time. But very few were able to do what Cohn did: join the resistance and go undercover as a German nurse, discovering valuable strategic information for the French intelligence service.
Not that she set out to be a spy, of course. But the fact that she was fluent in German made her an invaluable resource, and — driven partially by the pain of personal loss — she was eager to do her part when asked to serve. After the war, however, she left that time of her life behind for decades; everyone around her wanted to look forward, not back, once the fighting was over. Eventually, though, the Shoah Foundation was founded, and a call for stories, for testaments to the tragedy of the Holocaust, went out. Cohn answered the call, sharing her story with audiences around the globe via talks, a book, and now this film.
The movie’s title, which translates to “little pain in the neck,” refers to an affectionate nickname Cohn earned during the war. And as her determined, daring, dry nature makes itself clear in the moments and memories Hens captures, it’s easy to see why it stuck. Tiny but mighty — in a way that’s very reminiscent of both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Dr. Ruth Westheimer — Cohn is a wonderful example of an ordinary person who found herself capable of doing extraordinary things. Hopefully, her courage and spirit in sharing her story will inspire others to do the same; we need more examples like her in the world.– Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Pam Grady: Someday, some enterprising filmmaker will no doubt turn into thrilling drama Marthe Cohn’s eventful life as a Jewish woman who resisted the Nazis in France. But Cohn has lived a long enough life that filmmaker Nicola Alice Hens was able to commit the real woman and her memories to film in this entrancing documentary. Read full review.
Leslie Combemale 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. 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. Read full review.
Marina Antunes Marthe Cohn is a living legend. The 98-year-old Cohn was a French spy during WWII, saving thousands of lives with the intelligence she provided to the Allied troops. After decades of silence, Madame Cohn started speaking publicly about her experience and now spends her days sharing with anyone who will listen, particularly youth, her experience in the war. That, in-and-of-itself, is enough of a draw, especially since Cohn is a charming speaker, but Nicola Hens’ documentary Chichinette tackles far more than Cohn’s story as a military operative and by incorporating the entirety of Cohn’s life, not only her time in the war, the film’s scope is widely expanded. Hens makes wonderful observations on the roles of men and women in society and relationships, and perhaps most notably, highlights how finding a passion in later life and can benefit one’s disposition and longevity.
Loren King The story of Marthe Cohn, a diminutive, irrepressible 96 year-old at the time of the filming of Nicola Alice Hens’ documentary Chichinette: The Accidental Spy, deserves to be known in every corner of the globe. The film follows the spirited and tireless Cohn, born Marthe Hoffnung in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France at the border with Germany, as she travels the world recounting her role as a young spy for the French Resistance during World War II. For years, she never spoke about her experiences, not even to her husband. Finally, perhaps owing to her advancing years, she documented her own history in her 2002 book Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany. Cohn’s heartbreaking but heroic life — she lost her sister and her fiancé to the Nazis during the occupation of France — is fascinating. But it is Cohn herself that makes this film so memorable. Indefatigable, wise and sharp as a tack, she is purposeful and passionate in her mission to at last bear witness.
Liz Whittemore Marthe Cohn is not a name I had ever heard. This is a travesty that has now been remedied. As a student of history, I now understand how one woman helped take down the German army with pure passion, bravery, and determination for doing what was right. Her name should be shouted from the rooftops and printed boldly in our children’s textbooks. Filmmaker Nicola Hens allows us into the past, present, and future through the eyes and stories of Cohn. Chichinette is a beautiful and important documentary about a little known feminist icon.
Sheila Roberts Like many of her brilliant contemporaries — U.S. Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Holocaust survivor and renowned sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and acclaimed Canadian zoologist Dr. Anne Innis Dagg come immediately to mind – World War II spy Marthe Cohn’s crucial work behind enemy lines is finally receiving some well-deserved recognition in an inspiring documentary. Read full review.
MaryAnn Johanson There are so many amazing stories about women living unconventional, adventurous lives, and huge kudos to documentarian Nicola Hens for telling one of them. Not only is Marte Cohn’s inspiring story incredible — and long past time to be told — she’s still an inspiration today, at 96 years old, still active and engaged with the world, still traveling, still *living* when so many others seem to give up even when declining health isn’t stopping them. (I do love how Hens doesn’t shy away from the flip side of that. The scene in which Cohn and her husband visit a laudromat on one of their many trips abroad is a little depressing: Laundry truly is a neverending chore!) Cohn is my new hero, and I’m so glad I had the chance to “meet” her.
Jennifer Merin Nicola Hens’ thoroughly engaging documentary profiles 98-year old Martha Cohn, aka Chichinette, a deminutive powerhouse of a French Jewish woman who served as a spy for the allies during WWII, braving the dangers of Nazi Germany and saving thousands of lives. After decades of silence, Mme Cohn is touring the world to tell her story and share her knowledge of history. Marthe Cohn is a world class hero. As a character in a movie, she joins the ranks of other heroic women – the two Ruth’s (Dr. and Badger Ginsberg) and Anne Innis Dagg, to name several — whose stories are coming to light on the screen. This documentary is a must see. Let’s keep the stories of inspiring strong women alive,
Nikki Baughan: Despite her diminutive stature, Marthe Cohn is a force to be reckoned with. Cohn, who will turn 100 this year, is French-Jewish and acted as a spy in Germany during World War II. She would make a fascinating subject for any documentary, but filmmaker Nicola Hens beautifully captures Cohn’s inspirational energy by following her on a lecture tour of Europe, and allowing her to tell her incredible story in her own words.The use of line-drawn animations to illustrate key moments are a lovely touch, although it’s Cohn’s own memories that bring the past to colourful life. While most films about war concentrate on the male experience, Chicinette (Cohn’s codename, which translates, wonderfully, to ‘pain in the neck’) is a striking reminder that women have always played a crucial part in history.
Susan Wloszczyna: 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. Read full review.
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin