This documentary opens with newsreel footage of concentration camp survivors arriving by boat in Sweden in 1945 – they are mostly women, smiling and waving at the camera. Director Magnus Gertten explains that he’s spent years trying to put names to the faces. One is a Dutch socialist and feminist who returned to Amsterdam after the war to her women’s health clinic; another a 16-year-old Jewish girl from Poland with a beautiful smile who does not yet know that she is the only survivor in her family. Finally, the face of a Chinese woman, not smiling, but fixing the camera with an intense stare.
This last is Nadine Hwang, born into privilege in Madrid, the daughter of China’s ambassador to Spain and a Belgian mother. The reason behind Nadine’s intense expression is that she does not yet know the fate of the woman she fell in love with at the Ravensbrück concentration camp: a French opera singer called Q. They were separated when Nelly was transferred to the Mauthausen camp.
With his tender, gentle-going film Gertten tells their love story. It unfolds from the perspective of Nelly’s granddaughter Sylvie Bianchi as she excavates the boxes of photos and diaries left by her grandmother, piecing it all together. Luckily, Nelly did survive the camps – but only just, after contracting dysentery. She’d been a spy for the French resistance and was arrested by the SS while on a singing tour in 1944. Nadine, who had moved from Beijing to Paris in the 1930s, was imprisoned for helping people flee the Nazis across the Pyrenees to Spain. After the war, the two women were reunited and emigrated to Venezuela with Nelly’s daughter. They spent the rest of their lives together.
The film gives us a precious glimpse into LGBTQ+ life in the postwar period. Nadine was a wonderful photographer; her snaps and Super 8 films capture the couple’s glamorous, intimate parties at home in Caracas with their gay friends – “the boys” – drinking champagne and looking fabulous. In one they lightly caress each other’s fingers, Nadine in a beautifully tailored men’s suit, Nelly as gorgeous as a movie star.
From their time in the camp, Nelly’s diaries, miraculously, survive; they are written in pencil, the prose harrowing and haunting. Later, Nelly and Nadine edited and typed up the diaries for publication. A little naively, Nelly’s granddaughter wonders why this lesbian love story was rejected for publication in the postwar years. Surely now a publisher will snap it up pronto.