Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Chichinette: The Accidental Spy

She had one of the best code-names ever. Technically, it might have been more of a nickname, but “Chichinette,” the French slang word for “pain in the neck” (or perhaps someplace else) stuck with this French Jewish secret agent. She was recruited late in the war, but her intel was sufficiently game-changing to earn her a chest full of medals. Nonagenarian Marthe Cohn tells her story for our benefit and the many audiences she still regularly addresses in Nicola Hens’ Chichinette: The Accidental Spy, which opens tomorrow at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan.

Born Marthe Hoffnung in the German-speaking contested French region of Lorraine, the blond Cohn had the perfect background to spy on the occupied Germans, despite her Judaic heritage. Yet, for most of the war, Cohn focused on smuggling refugees and fugitives to the free zone, on a volunteer basis. She would also help shepherd most of her family to safety, but not the sister who was her primary partner in illegal border crossings.

After the liberation of France, Hoffnung tried to enlist with the free French army, but she was relegated to clerical duties, until an officer finally recognized the value of a native German speaker with professional nursing experience. Just sneaking her into Germany was a neat trick. Many tense moments followed, but the information she managed to relay back could very well have saved the Allies months of time and thousands of lives.

It is a great story, but Hens really takes her time in telling it. Frankly, the first half of the film is problematically slack, inviting us to watch in rapt silence as Cohn and her husband Major worry over hotel wifi passwords and the view from their Airbnb. Cohn’s story is loaded with intrigue and historical significance, but there is just no denying the dullness of the first forty-some minutes of hens’ doc.

Fortunately, things pick up greatly during the second half. Essentially, Hens lets Cohn tell her story. While she incorporates a few archival pictures, she mostly illustrates Cohn’s oral history with current footage of the country roads and border crossings under discussion. The effect is somewhat reminiscent of Lanzmann’s Shoah, but Cohn’s voiceovers are considerably livelier.

Anything that spreads awareness of Cohn’s story and the horrors of National Socialism is a force for good, but judging from Chichinette, we can probably safely state Cohn is a much more interesting subject than Hens is as a filmmaker. The 85-minute Chichinette is a quick way for viewers to learn about Cohn’s heroic life, but buying her memoir, Behind Enemy Lines, is recommended with greater enthusiasm (that way she earns a royalty). It screens tomorrow afternoon (12/25), Friday afternoon (12/27) and Monday evening (12/30), at the JCC Manhattan.