She is a tiny woman, white-haired, hard of hearing and stooped with age.
When the film crew checks in with her, Marthe Cohn is about to turn 96 (she’s 99 now), long-retired from nursing and the medical research assistant work she did with her husband, Dr. Major Cohn.
But the small and “shrinking” (as she puts it) woman with the French accent still has work to do, traveling the United States, which has been her home for over half a century, and Europe, which is where she earned that chest full of medals she sometimes has on her coat.
“Chichinette,” they called her during World War II. “Little pain in the neck,” Cohn translates with a laugh. The Jewish Cohn — her name was Hofnung then — is a Holocaust survivor “bearing witness” to the tragedy that befell her sister and millions of Jews, Gypsies and others under Nazi rule.
But the people who gave her that nickname “for asking too many questions” and being a pest about it were in French Intelligence. “Chichinette: The Accidental Spy” is about the story she tells when she speaks to schools, colleges, Jewish groups and others. She went into Nazi Germany to help the Allies finish the job of winning World War II.
Director Nicola Hens follows Cohn and her equally-elderly husband as they revisit her life, the places she lived, and remember what she did as she catches up with relatives and speaks to groups all along the way.
It’s mainly just the two of them, mostly her speaking (in English and French with English subtitles) as they venture from Paris to Metz, where she was born, fleeing to Poitiers in “Free France” after the Germans invaded and occupied the rest of the country.
Life was mainly about avoiding discovery, a large family of Jews hiding in Occupied France. Her beloved older sister was arrested. Her fiance joined the Resistance and was executed. Marthe, after becoming a nurse, acquired a fake passport and moved from Marseilles to Paris, mourning her lost love and wondering if she had a future.
But after D-Day, she found new purpose. Fluent in German as well as French, she enlisted as an agent, and in the very last days of the war, provided important intelligence to the French army as it was about to move into Germany.
Those expecting derring do and fireworks in this story, which she didn’t tell publicly under the early 2000s in the book Behind Enemy Lines: the True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany, won’t find a lot of it here. It took several tries for young Marthe to cross into Germany-held territory. She took as few extra risks as possible, gathered just a couple of key bits of information, and made sure it reached the right people.
She doesn’t over-dramatize her exploits. It’s enough to know that in an age and place where her ethnicity alone was a death warrant, she took risks and “a mission” that saved soldiers lives and helped shape plans at the tactical level in April and May of 1945.
Stylistically, “Chichinette” is a personal story told in almost entirely her voice (mostly in French), with much detail skipped over about her daily survival, if not her long-ago travels in Occupied France and Vichy France. Dramatically and cinematically, it’s quite flat, almost drab at times. I didn’t find it nearly as emotional as other documentaries I’ve seen on the subject, but that’s because while she suffered tragedies, Cohn’s life was plucky and even heroic.
It’s a compelling Holocaust/espionage story not given the most dazzling treatment, cinematically.
Hens uses animation to recreate scenes, such as the dance where she met her beloved Jacques, and draws from a large supply of still photos Cohn and her family were able to keep throughout the war.
These serve to remind us that not every Holocaust story was a relentless tragedy, and that some survivors, when given the chance, fought back — even if they had to be a “pain in the neck” to do it.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Marthe Cohn, Dr. Major Cohn.
Credits: Directed by Nicola Hens. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:26