Review: ‘Chichinette’ reveals the World War II spy exploits of a Palos Verdes centenarian
In “Chichinette: The Accidental Spy,” it’s not the Holocaust-era exploits of its intrepid subject, Marthe Hoffnung Cohn, that are especially memorable (though they should be) but the more recent, workaday activities of the documentary’s wise, feisty and diminutive star who turned 100 on April 13 and exhibits a joie de vivre here that’s both captivating and deeply inspiring.
Writer-director Nicola Hens (she also co-shot with Gaetan Varone) eschews the classic documentary mix of archival footage, interviews with outside observers, dramatic re-enactments and the like to support her narrative — and it tends to work against her. The result is an often static visual mix of travelogue-like backdrops with a smattering of personal photos and disposable bits of rudimentary animation as the Jewish, French-born Cohn — in on-camera chats and extended voiceovers — recounts how, toward the end of World War II, she joined the French army, posed as a German nurse (she was blond, blue-eyed and fluent in German) and crossed enemy lines to gather strategic information for Allied forces.
The inquisitive Cohn received the nickname Chichinette, French for “little pain in the neck,” from her colleagues in Army Intelligence, but from all evidence they were lucky to have her.
But Hens largely holds back these details until the latter part of the film, which somehow drains this intriguing, potentially pulse-pounding period, first publicly discussed in Cohn’s 2002 memoir, of much of its inherent scope and impact.
The same goes for the recap of her family’s wartime trials: Cohn’s parents and siblings fled to the “free zone” in the South of France after the Nazi occupation, her sister was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, and Cohn’s fiancé joined the Resistance and was murdered. As presented, these pivotal events are affecting but not quite as vivid or gripping as one might expect.
The film more successfully follows the Palos Verdes,-based Cohn and her longtime doctor-husband, Major (for many years, she served as his research assistant), on a 2016 European speaking tour, visiting relatives and several locales from Cohn’s past en route. Watching this devoted, still energetic pair of nonagenarians prepare for their trip, navigate travel, work laptops, ensconce in apartments and hotels, do laundry, explore the sights and just generally support each other is a lovely thing to behold.
The highly decorated Cohn is a feminist heroine who definitely deserves her own cinematic close-up. This one’s a start, but perhaps there’s a star-driven narrative feature to be had that can more richly bring her striking story to life.
'Chichinette: The Accidental Spy'
In English and French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: Available on KinoNow and VOD
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