Finding the true meaning of love has become challenging in the modern world. We are so engrossed in indulging in all that is associated with love that often we do not focus on the emotion. We aim for society-approved perfection and blame it for being a distraction when it does not live up to that standard. At a time when love is commoditized, Nelly and Nadine’s journey is a hopeful reminder that love is simple and driven by maddening passion. Directed by Magnus Gertten, Nelly & Nadine is a documentary that revolves around the secret relationship that was formed between Belgian opera singer Nelly Mousset-Vos and Nadine Hwang.
‘Nelly & Nadine’ Plot Summary: What Is The Documentary About?
Nelly and Nadine’s love story was kept locked and hidden in a dusty trunk. Nelly’s daughter, Claude, never approved of her mother’s relationship with the woman she met at Ravensbruck concentration camp. She preferred hiding the truth, and it was only after Claude’s death that her daughter, Sylvie Bianchi, decided to go through Nelly’s diaries, letters, photographs, and Super 8 movies stored in the trunk. The world would never have known about Nelly and Nadine’s relationship if any of the material had been destroyed. Sylvie remembered meeting Nadine when she visited her grandmother’s house. She was made to believe that Nadine was one of Nelly’s friends. When Sylvie unearthed the mounting evidence that proved that they shared a romantic relationship, she struggled to hold back her tears. Reading about the hardship, the torture, and the pain that Nelly had to endure overwhelmed Sylvie, and her love for Nadine, even amidst all the suffering, acted like a soothing balm.
Sylvie met literary biographer Joan Schenkar to find out more about Nadine. We learn that Nadine was a political prisoner. She belonged to an influential Chinese family and had developed an interest in riding cars and planes from a young age. She arrived in Paris in the early 1930s. She admired Natalie Clifford Barney and became a regular at her literary salon. The literary salon brought together talented women artists and writers. Nadine was Natalie’s employee, worked as a chauffeur and secretary, and was also her lover. While Nadine was in love with Natalie, Schenkar states that there is no evidence that confirms that Natalie felt the same way for Nadine. In 1944, Nadine Hwang was deported to the Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp. Nadine’s face stood out in the archive footage taken when she, along with thousands of other prisoners, arrived in Malmo. It was evident that she was worried and searching for someone, and only recently did we get to know that Nadine was fearful about Nelly’s condition. Nelly and Nadine were separated after Nelly was deported to the Mauthausen concentration camp.
Were Nelly And Nadine Together After War?
Nelly was deported to Mauthausen; she, along with eighty others, was crammed together in the railway car. There was no space to move, and the woman who clanged on to her was sick and emitted an awful smell. After spending five nights and five days, they got down at a train station. Many women did not survive in the dreadful conditions, and the corpses were unloaded from the railway car. Mauthausen concentration camp was located at the top of the mountain, and they had to climb 186 steps to reach it. Nelly fell sick during her time at Mauthausen, but it was Nadine’s memories that kept her alive. At the archive for war victims, Sylvie and her sister, Anne, found out through Nelly’s ID card at the Ravensbruck concentration camp that she had been arrested for espionage. They were surprised to learn that their grandma was a secret agent working for the Resistance. In a letter written by Nelly, she discussed that she had recently separated from her husband, and she had to look after her children. Her friends took care of Claire and Claude while she was imprisoned in 1943. She admitted that she was a part of the Secret Army and the intelligence network Luc, run by Colonel Bernard. Sylvia and Anne were rediscovering their grandma, and they were in awe of the woman she used to be. Sylvia remembered that Nadine once told them when they were little that Nelly was a war hero, but they did not know the real implication of the term.
After the war, Nelly and Nadine moved to Venezuela and lived together. They wanted to be as far from the memories of the war as they could, and Caracas became their home. They introduced themselves as cousins to strangers. They often held dinners and parties at their house and had their friends over. They were close to another queer couple— Jack and Raymond, known for their famous radio show “The Voice of France”. Jose Rafael Lovera and his wife developed a fond friendship with the couple as well. Lovera’s daughter, Maria Alexandra Lovera, later visited Sylvie and discussed how she found a secret box that belonged to her father and consisted of pictures of his lover, Luis. When Maria discovered the box, she felt liberated. She wondered about her own sexuality and decided from then on that she was not ready to live the double life that her father did.
Claude could not accept her mother’s relationship with Nadine. She had spent two years thinking that her mother would never return home from the camp, and when she did, she brought her lover along. Claude was not ready to share her mother’s love and affection with anyone else, and after spending a few months together, Claude decided to return to Europe. Nelly and Nadine continued to spend the best part of their lives in Venezuela and returned to Brussels when Nadine’s health started to deteriorate. Nadine passed away in 1972, and Nelly started to write letters addressing Nadine from then on. She struggled to cope with the sudden absence of the person she could not imagine her life without. She wanted to believe that Nadine had gone away for work and would return soon. It was Nadine’s memories that kept her alive at Mauthausen when she wanted to give up on life, and after years of choosing to be with each other, Nelly was forced to live with the agonizing emptiness. Nelly passed away in 1985, and she and Nadine were buried in different graves. When Sylvia came across a manuscript, she realized that Nelly and Nadine wanted to tell their story, and they had edited Nelly’s entire diary to make it fit for publication. Unfortunately, no one showed interest in sharing their story with the world, and the manuscript collected dust in the trunk. After all these years, Nelly and Nadine finally get to tell their story through Nelly’s granddaughter, Sylvia.
Living together as a lesbian couple at a time when the world was completely against queers speaks volumes about love and persistence. They found love in a morbid place. When they had nothing to look forward to, they supported each other, and somehow the little ray of hope in the form of love helped them overcome all of their sufferings. Nelly & Nadine makes remarkable use of archive footage. The identification of the survivors was a brilliant touch. The visuals complimented the extracts from Nelly’s diary entries. The words dictated the visuals, almost as if nature could sense and react to the emotions Nelly experienced. Every individual had a story to tell, and while some were lost, there were a few that survived. Nelly and Nadine’s undying love is one such unforgettable story that is important to queer history. As individuals, they were two powerful women who dared to secretly work against the interests of the Nazis and survived their atrocities together.