Magnus Gertten • Director of Nelly & Nadine
“I was interested in revealing hidden history”
by Teresa Vena
- BERLINALE 2022: The new documentary by the Swedish filmmaker is a touching love story between two women who met in a Second World War concentration camp
Swedish director Magnus Gertten is presenting his new documentary Nelly & Nadine [+see also:
interview: Magnus Gertten
film profile], in the Panorama section of this year's Berlinale. We talked to the director about his commitment to his protagonists and the most important aspects of his visual concept for the film.
Cineuropa: Could you tell us more about when and how you began to make films relating to the Second World War?
Magnus Gertten: I actually wanted to avoid the topic to begin with. Everyone told you to do so. But then I saw a news reel from war time shot in my own hometown, which talked about a huge historical event for Sweden. It was a Red Cross operation whereby people were rescued and taken to my hometown. I was fascinated by the footage and the people I saw in it. I wondered whether I’d be able to identify any of them. I was prepared for an impossible mission, but I found I could identify a few of them. And they turned out to be the protagonists of my first film Harbour of Hope (2011). It was a way for me to make my own little contribution. When I finished the film and travelled internationally with it, people started to get in touch with me. One person came up to me to say she’d realised her mother was in it. Someone else, in a screening in Israel, said that the little girl standing in the background was her. So, off the back of these testimonials, I decided to make another film, which was Every Face Has a Name [+see also:
film profile] (2015). And there again, I travelled with the film and at one of its last screenings in Paris, a woman came up to me and said that they recognized someone in the pictures. They were talking about Nadine, and that woman happened to be Nelly’s granddaughter, Sylvie. Sylvie hadn't started going through the material yet. It was too painful for her to cope with this family secret and she was reluctant to do a film about it. But this was an advantage for me; I could be part of the process from the beginning.
How do you get the right distance from the topic?
It’s a professional distance that I need. Moreover, I feel so privileged to have met these brave people, they trust me with so much responsibility. I’m thankful to them for entrusting their stories to me. I’m impressed by how well people have coped with it, and I’ve gotten to know some colossal human beings. I’m very emotional, but I’m also professional. I’m there to tell a story, to help people tell their story. I’m not someone who’s there to help them grieve.
What do you like most in the story of Nelly & Nadine?
It was interesting to learn about this family secret and to see what shape the power of love can take. Moreover, these were important female pioneers, and models for queer people. I was interested in revealing hidden history, telling stories we hadn't heard of, opening my mind to new perspectives. None of my films are agenda-driven. It seems that they often end up becoming some kind of humanistic manifesto, though, because this is what I have in me and what I want filmmaking to be.
How long did you follow Sylvie for? And was there a moment when she might have wanted to stop?
We started in 2016 - early 2017, and we were a bit delayed because of the pandemic. There were times when it was very hard for Sylvie, but she made the decision she needed to do it and went through with it. I was happy to be there at that moment in time. She also has a partner, a silent but significant supporter.
How did you develop the film’s visual concept? What were the most important aspects in this respect?
It was clearly a challenge finding the right form for this amazing material, in order to combine her own material, the film reels, the pictures, the diary… We had this unique chance to hear Nelly's own words by way of the diary, to get inside the story. But what do we see when we hear voices from concentration camps? I didn't want to see the usual, well-known concentration camp images. I had the idea early on of finding archive footage with a poetic quality, which could depict the protagonist's inner feelings. I didn't want the film to look super-realistic or to have a journalistic approach. We should feel her talking about Nelly's inner life, and I think the modern-day images of the farm were a good supplement.
Nelly’s diary is crucial to the film. How much material did you have and how did you choose what to use?
There are different versions of it, a lot of handwritten notes and plenty of material. There’s actually already a book there, which I would very much like to be published. We selected everything that related to Nadine. I would have loved to have had more from Nadine's perspective, too.
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