Chichinette: The Accidental Spy

The spy who came in from the cold.

(2018) Documentary (Kino-LorberMarthe Kohl, Major Kohl. Directed by Nicola Alice Hens

 

Not every hero during the Second World War was a big strapping man with bulging biceps, three-day stubble and a cigar in the corner of his mouth. This documentary is about a French Jew from Metz in the Lorraine region, which until the First World War had been annexed by Germany; German was spoken in the house more than French. Marthe Kohl (at the time, Marthe Hofnung) relates that her parents didn’t speak any French even though they were ostensibly French citizens.

As the war clouds gathered, the French government recommended that their citizenry near the German border relocate to somewhere safer. Marthe and her older sister Stephanie helped hundreds do just that, even after the Germans occupied that part of France. Stephanie would later be caught and deported to Auschwitz. Marthe never knew exactly how she died; her leg had been broken during an escape attempt and she either died on the train to the concentration camp, or she would have been gassed immediately upon arrival since she was unable to work.

Marthe also had a sweetheart, Jacques, who hoped to become a doctor in Indochina with Marthe, training to be a nurse, at his side. He was madly in love with her and was willing to convert to Judaism, despite the inherent dangers in that at the time. However, when France was occupied, he joined the resistance, was captured, and executed. Marthe learned about his fate through a newspaper article.

Despondent over her losses, she tried to join the resistance but her small stature (she’s barely five feet tall) and her youthful looks prevented that. Finally, she joined the Free French Army as a nurse once Paris was liberated, but when the Colonel of her brigade discovered she spoke German fluently, combined with her blonde hair, he realized that she would be a huge asset in the intelligence division. Following an extensive training course, she was smuggled into Germany and there managed to discover some crucial information that would save thousands of lives.

Hens allows Marthe to tell her story at her own pace, leaving much of the revelations behind what she did in the war for the final act. Mostly we see Marthe traveling with her husband Major, an American medical researcher whom she assisted after the war, from their suburban Los Angeles home to various places important to Marthe. Marthe, who wrote a book on her exploits after retiring as a nurse, never spoke about her experiences before she wrote the book, which came as a shock to her husband although he was aware of the medals she had earned during the war.

Hens is a clever cinematographer with some wonderful camera angles, although to be honest as a director she spends far too much time on the mundane aspects of Marthe’s travels, from packing and unpacking suitcases, dealing with wi-fi passwords and doing laundry in a French laundromat. It’s kind of a shame; Marthe is an engaging storyteller and a compelling subject. She was 96 years old when the film was shot three years before this writing (she is still alive as this is written) and spry as someone half her age.

Her message – do not take orders that violate your conscience – is meant for a younger generation, and one can’t help but wonder if she had an idea that the country she spent half a century in would change as radically as it did. Certainly, that advice rings more true now than it did in 2016. However, Marthe Kohl is heroic by any standard of any age. She’s someone that any young person could look up to as a role model proudly.

The film is screening tonight at Temple Beth Shalom in Miami. It will be available on HBO and streaming on KinoNow.com as of April 14th. There may be other one-off screenings before then so keep your eyes peeled, particularly at your local Jewish Community Center – or ask them to see about booking the film for your neighborhood.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is clever and blending the watercolor animations with the actual locations the events took place in is magic. Marthe is an extremely compelling subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: It takes a while to get to what earned Marthe the medals that are displayed throughout the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chichinette, roughly translated, means “Little pain in the neck.” Marthe received this nickname because during her intelligence training she questioned just about everything.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spy Behind Home Plate
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Peppermint

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