Lesbian love that started in Ravensbrück concentration camp

In the beginning we see women on a ship arriving in Malmö in April 1945. They are emaciated, their clothes are tattered. You have just been liberated from Ravensbrück concentration camp. Although the women are visibly attracted, the scene documents a moment of happiness and liberation—they smile, laugh, and wave.

Then: two girls in striped hijabs cradle each other’s arms and kiss right on the mouth. Cut, and we see a black-haired woman looking serious with a short haircut. Her name is Nadine Huang. The movie “Nelly and Nadine” is her story, she says off the soundtrack.

A scene from the archival footage used by director Magnus Gerten in Nelly and Nadine.
© AutoImages

Swedish director Magnus Gerten’s documentary premiered at the Berlinale, to enthusiastic acclaim and won a Teddy Award. It is the first film about a lesbian’s experiences in a concentration camp.

It also offers a fascinating story: the fateful encounter between a Belgian singer and a Franco-Chinese resistance fighter at Christmas 1944 in Ravensbrück. The two survive, find each other again after the war, move to Venezuela and live together happily and self-determined until the end of their lives.

I’ll say it right away: I’m a fan, too, precisely because the movie tells the compelling story of a great lesbian love firsthand. “Nelly and Nadine” ends in one fell swoop the decades of silence and shame that have continued since the war. And because Gertten, who is working with the Malmö material for the third time, has mastered his craft, it’s a fascinating and engaging piece of work. I’ve watched dozens of well-intentioned but boring documentaries about the Holocaust. This is no small issue.

Gerten’s other feature is highlighting one of the very few Colored women To throw it, that we know they were in a concentration camp. Nadine Huang was born in Spain in 1902, the daughter of a Chinese consul and his Belgian wife. The family moved to China, where Nadine attended a French school. In the early 1930s she went to Paris, where she became the companion and lover of the great lesbian writer Natalie Barney.

Hwang’s facial features are something special in Malmö’s shots, they stand out among all the white faces. However, the film only partially fulfills its promise of decolonization: Nadine is the one who tempts us to follow the narrative. However, it is her partner, Belgian singer Nelly Musset-Vos, who is the focus of the documentary – or rather, Nelly’s granddaughter, Sylvie, is searching for her grandmother.

The film plays with the theme of Nadine’s non-whiteness, but ultimately does nothing about it. On the other hand, it is mentioned many times that Nelly and Nadine met in the camp barracks when Nelly was singing the famous aria “One fine day we shall see” from Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly”. The opera is a classic example of the colonial orientalist perspective. But in Ravensbrück the roles are reversed: it is the White Nile who sings the role of Butterfly to Nadine the Chinese.

Nadine Huang (centre) at the start
Nadine Huang (center) at the beginning of “Nelly and Nadine”.
© AutoImages

Moments like these provide a unique opportunity for the decolonization of Holocaust history that scholars are fighting for. But Nadine is still a bit of an outsider in portraying Gerten. But since Nelly’s notes he quotes have a similar perspective and were written by the women together, one must ask: How well did Nadine internalize her orientalist point of view? Obviously, these are very ambitious questions for “Nelly and Nadine.”

Because the film is primarily dedicated to the farmer’s wife Sylvie, who gradually accepts that she had a lesbian grandmother and that this fact was ignored in the family. In Paris, Sylvie meets the late biographer Joan Shankar, whose central line of the film says: “Nothing is real, socially, until it is spoken.”

Magnus Gerten accompanies Sylvie and sometimes pushes her so hard that she says out loud that her grandmother and Nadine were lovers. The heterosexual perspective takes up plenty of space, making “Nelly and Nadine” feel like a feel-good movie for a heterosexual audience, taken by the hand and given a romantic hole for all its lesbian kin. This is frankly a bit lame for queer history in 2022. Still, the movie is an event, because queer views from a concentration camp are stigmatized over and over and have been unseen for so long.

Granddaughter of Nelly Selfie.
Granddaughter of Nelly Selfie.
© AutoImages

However, there’s no serious examination of where the two women met — it’s not a campy movie. With the exception of Shenkar, the experts have no opinion, although many people have researched lesbians in concentration camps in general and Nadine Hwang in particular. First and foremost Suzette Robichon, doyen of French lesbian history.

Exactly why the film charms – a lesbian love story from Ravensbrück – remains a mystery. We know about the victimized community’s brutal homophobia, but no one asks how it affected the two women’s bond. Instead, poetic minute shots of Selfie’s farm, fields and charming cats can be seen. My impression is that Gerten has made the film beyond all historians.

The director revealed tons of unique material on lesbian history, Super 8 movies and the unpublished manuscript of Nelly and Nadine, hundreds of photos and much more in his selfie farm. The historian in me is pulling my hair out, why not archive it, view it, and publish it. Magnus Gertten wrote on TwitterHe does not have any other plans for Nadine Hwang and materials.

“Nelly and Nadine” touches on important topics and then drops them again. We also never find out who the next couple is from the very beginning. But for all its loopholes and shortcomings, it is an important and compelling piece of work. When people come across testimonies from strange relatives in the future, after “Nelly and Nadine” they will treat their story differently. And I am grateful for that.

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