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

Lebanon


Lebanon

The perfect addition to any floral arrangement - a tank.

(2009) War Drama (Sony Classics) Yoav Donat, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Strauss, Dudu Tassa, Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Ashraf Barhom, Fares Hannaya. Directed by Samuel Maoz

 

War is hell, and hell can be made of iron, oil and cigarette smoke. It can be the stink of perspiration brought on by being trapped in a metal box in desert heat, the acrid smell of gunfire and the horrifying smell of charred flesh. War is hell and you can bring that hell with you.

In the 1982 Israeli-Lebanon conflict, the crew of a single tank – the commander (Tiran), the gunner (Donat), the loader (Cohen) and the driver (Moshonov) are given orders to clear out a Lebanese village that the Israeli Air Force has bombed into next week. After the gunner makes a hash out of a shot, the repercussions of his failure reverberate throughout the entire film.

Mainly we are inside the tank and see only parts of the crew – a face, a leg, a torso – and other than a few scenes our world is theirs. We see through the eyes of their targeting scope, and what they see is grim indeed.

Director Maoz was 20 years old when that war broke out and he served in the war as part of a tank crew (in fact Shmuel, the name of the gunner on the tank in the movie, is Maoz’s nickname). The experiences that are shown here are not unlike the ones he experienced himself; the horrible burden of taking a human life, the terror at being in the center of a barrage of fire, the tension of being lost behind enemy lines.

There aren’t many characters beyond the ones in the tank. There’s an officer (Strauss) who may or may not know what he’s doing, an interrogator (Barhom) who will do or say whatever is necessary to make his charge talk, and a captive (Tassa) who is in mortal danger from the interrogator but could turn on all of them in the blink of an eye.

From the sense that the movie invokes many of the tensions and horrors that those who serve in war experience, it is successful. Unfortunately, the acting performances vary wildly from ice cold and hard to read to wildly over the top and not believable. Moaz had wanted the actors to experience their roles more than play them and in casting he went less for acting experience and more for wartime experience. That has its pros and cons, the con largely being that some of the performances were a little too uneven. I like what he was trying to do; I just don’t think he had the cast that pulled it off completely. However, some of the performances – particularly that of Donat, Moaz’s surrogate and in a very real sense the audience surrogate as well, and also of Tiran, the officer holding his crew together by his fingernails – were memorable.

Be warned; this is a dimly lit film because of its location. The production design of the tank is extremely impressive; the belly is filthy, with oil, water, blood, urine and whatever other fluids are nearby pooling in the bottom, discarded cigarette butts and other trash floating in the muck. We don’t always get to fully appreciate the look but we appreciate the feel of the tank because we’re as close as a movie audience can get to being in one. The tank rattles, shakes, burps, vibrates and lurches like a living drunkard. It throws the men inside it around and rattles them around until their teeth chatter like novelty items. There is nothing glamorous about being in a tank crew and Moaz conveys this with stark honesty.

The movie is described as Das Boot in a tank and that’s probably the best and most profound description you’re going to get. If you loved that movie, you’re going to enjoy this one. This one isn’t quite as good – there’s nobody in it quite as compelling as Jurgen Prochnow’s Capt. Willenbrock – but it does invoke the same feeling of being alone in a tin can in a dangerous place where death can come at any moment.

WHY RENT THIS: Claustrophobic and realistic.  The tension is at a very high level throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is rather weak in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Being a war movie, there is some bloody violence related to war, plenty of bad language including some sexual references and a bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Caine’s grandfather had a similar job to Hobbs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While most home video has a making-of featurette on the disc, this one is a cut above the rest as this film had a particularly arduous journey from conception to screen and more than being a back-patting lovefest as most making-of shorts are, this one is actually interesting.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking that the movie broke even at best during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

Miracle at St. Anna


Miracle at St. Anna

If you mess with these guys, they'll sic the kid on ya!

(Touchstone) Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Pierfrancesco Favino, Valentina Cervi, Matteo Sciabordi, Walton Goggins. Directed by Spike Lee

It all begins with a post office and an old man trying to buy some stamps. This leads to a senseless murder, a nearly-retired postal worker pulling a gun on the old man and shooting him dead in cold blood. Further investigation turns up something startling; hidden in the apartment of the postal worker is the head of an ancient Italian statue, worth a ridiculous amount of money. What was it doing in the home of a postal worker and why did he kill that old man apparently at random?

See, it all really begins with World War II, and the 92nd Infantry Buffalo Soldiers during the invasion of Italy. Four servicemen – straight-arrow SSgt. Stamps (Luke), huge child-like PFC Train (Miller), steady Cpl. Negron (Alonso) and skirt-chasing asshole Sgt. Cummings (Ealy) – survive the brutal crossfire of a Nazi ambush coupled with the artillery barrage from their own commanders who didn’t believe black soldiers could have advanced that far that quickly. They flee across a river to relative safety where Train befriends an injured Italian orphan boy (Sciabordi) who refers to the lumbering Train as his “chocolate giant.”  

Train carries around the head of a statue he picked up in Florence, which he believes makes him invisible or invulnerable when he rubs it (Run, Forrest, RUN) which fascinates the boy. The four soldiers and the boy make their way to a small Italian village which has suffered cruelly under the yoke of the Nazis and the Fascists. They welcome the soldiers in, and nurse the injured boy back to health.

The soldiers feel at ease here, as Stamps comments “I feel freer here than I do at home.” The bond between the soldiers is tested when both Stamps and Miller chase after the same white Italian woman, while an Italian partisan shows up trying to find out why a small Italian town nearby was massacred by the Nazis. The interlude allows the men to talk about why they’re fighting. However, it becomes clear that it isn’t a matter of if the Germans are going to come back to town but when, and getting the four soldiers back to their unit is going to take a miracle.

I’m deliberately withholding a good deal of plot points here, mainly so that they don’t get spoiled, although to be honest it makes the plot sound like a bit of a mess. It all winds up making sense, even though it takes nearly two and a half hours to get there. Lee hasn’t directed a war movie before, but he does a credible job. Some of the battle scenes are brutal indeed, with limbs flying everywhere and blood spattering everywhere else. It might even be argued that the battle scenes are too brutal, although I found them to be no less visceral than Saving Private Ryan, I can see where sensitive sorts might feel a little queasy.

The problem here is that the movie tells a story that is about an hour and a half long in two and a half hours. The bookending sequence of the post office murder and its aftermath seems a bit unnecessary and there are places where the plot gets bogged down. I think it might have been a mistake to let novelist James McBride adapt his own novel; it is difficult for writers to edit their own work and the script could have benefitted from someone less emotionally invested in it cutting some of the fat.

The battle sequences, while gory, are really well done, particularly the final Nazi assault on the town. There is a bit of a mystical background that I won’t get into that plays a role nicely here; the movie could have easily ended at this point, although it goes on for some time after that.

This is an ensemble piece in the truest sense of the word, with none of the actors really standing out, but here that’s actually a compliment. Luke, Ealy, Miller and Alonso work off of each other to make a good movie rather than a star turn; it shows professionalism and sacrifice on the part of each man and they should be applauded for that if nothing else. However, you can also applaud them for bringing some humanity to their roles which could have easily descended into one-note caricatures.

I have always blown hot and cold about Spike Lee. When he is at his best, as in Malcolm X and She’s Gotta Have It, he is one of the best directors of this generation. When he’s at his worst, as in She Hate Me and School Daze, his work can be mind-numbing. Miracle at St. Anna falls somewhere in between; while it raises the conversational bar about racism in the military and the motivations of African-American fighting for freedoms that they didn’t enjoy at home, it fills so much space with soap opera and extraneous material that the film’s message gets lost in the noise. Still, when you have a director as technically proficient as Lee is, even the noise is entertaining.  

WHY RENT THIS: A sometimes brutal look at World War II from a different angle than the more mainstream films we’ve seen lately like Saving Private Ryan and A Flag for Our Fathers.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie runs overly long and some of the combat sequences seem to be carnage for their own sake.

FAMILY VALUES: As this is a war movie, there is some battle carnage, also a good deal of salty language. There’s also some nudity and sexual situations; rent this for viewing after the kids are in bed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wesley Snipes was originally cast in the film, but had to drop out due to his tax evasion trial.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Exclusively on the Blu-Ray edition there is a roundtable discussion between Lee, McBride and veterans of the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen regarding racial prejudice in the armed forces, and a featurette on the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.  

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Yes Man