French film Colette is up for the best short documentary award at the Oscars on Sunday night. It tells the story of a woman from Normandy who goes on a sort of pilgrimage to Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in Germany, where her brother was killed during the Second World War, in the company of a young history student.
Tears are running down the cheeks of Colette Marin-Catherine – who turns 92 on April 25, the day of the Oscars ceremony – as she grips the arm of 19-year-old history student Lucie Fouble. They are at Mittelbau-Dora in central Germany. There is not much to see at the site of this former Nazi concentration camp. But the haunting effects of the past are all too present for these two women.
Marin-Catherine’s brother was murdered during the Second World War – one of the 9,000 French people deported to Dora. Fouble was conducting research on his story. The two of them decided to visit the camp together.
This is the backdrop for the short documentary Colette, which is up for an award in that category at the 2021 Oscars.
“No one had any idea it’d become so huge!” Marin-Catherine said from her flat in the Norman city Caen a few days before the ceremony. The Oscar nomination has changed her life completely; the phone keeps ringing, journalists keep interviewing her – and she relishes the opportunity to talk about the documentary and the story it elucidates.
‘He had an iron will’
The documentary project started in 2018. American director Anthony Giacchino and French producer Alice Doyard were looking for heroic figures from the Second World War to make a film about. They came across Marin-Catherine in Normandy. She joined the French Resistance as a secondary school pupil.
Her family was deeply patriotic – and she always kept in mind that her grandfather and two uncles were killed in the First World War; as well as that her great-grandfather died in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War. “In our family all the men died in wars,” Marin-Catherine put it.
As a teenager during the Occupation she monitored the German soldiers’ comings and goings around Caen for the Resistance, noting the licence plates of their vehicles. Her brother Jean-Pierre, meanwhile, distributed leaflets, stashed weapons and helped Resistance members hide.
In 1943, Jean-Pierre was arrested a few months after he garlanded Great War memorials – a symbolic crime in the eyes of the Nazi occupiers. Sentenced to forced labour, he was initially sent to the Struthoff camp in Alsace, then to Gross-Rosen concentration camp in Germany, and finally to Mittelbau-Dora. He died of exhaustion there on March 22, 1945 – 10 days after his 19th birthday.
“He was a good-looking chap – and an athlete to boot,” Marin-Catherine recounted. “He had an iron will as well as great intelligence; he was two years ahead in his studies. It was so terrible to see such a brilliant human being disappear – you can imagine the kind of future he would have had!”
Marin-Catherine vowed never to go to Germany. She didn’t want to take part in what some see as the morbid tourism at the concentration and death camps: “I most certainly wasn’t going to go to Mittelbau-Dora in a coach full of people chatting away to each other.”
But meeting Fouble changed her mind. Giacchino and Doyard put her in touch with this history student – who was working on a biography of Jean-Pierre as part of a book about the French deportees to Mittelbau-Dora. “There was a kind of spontaneous empathy that emerged between her and me; I literally adopted her as my granddaughter,” Marin-Catherine said.
‘I gained a grandmother’
The two filmmakers soon proposed that they take a trip to Mittelbau-Dorn to follow in Jean-Pierre’s footsteps. Marin-Catherine agreed to go with Fouble. “It made me think that it wouldn’t be a tourist trip; it would really be a kind of pilgrimage,” she said. “I never would have done it without this magnificent opportunity the filmmakers gave me. Lucie was a great help to me. Thanks to her, I was able to go and see the exact place where Jean-Pierre died.”
Under the camera’s gaze, the former Resistance member was overwhelmed with emotion as she went to Mittelbau-Dora: “I knew that as soon as I crossed the border that it would change me. It was quite something to hear people speaking German again after all those years; it brought back a lot of memories of the Occupation.”
The experience also left a deep mark on Fouble. “I’ve had trouble getting over it,” she said. “I remember when we were in the crematorium and Colette told me that was where Jean-Pierre died; she just broke into tears. But it all did so much to help me grow as a human being. In addition to the honour of befriending a former member of the Resistance, I also gained a grandmother.”
“Given my age, it’ll be Lucie who will keep this story’s memory alive,” Marin-Catherine said. “I’ve only got one thing to say to the next generations: Don’t stir up hatred! I see this film as a message of peace.”
She will be watching the Oscars ceremony on television live from her home in Normandy. “I’m 92, so winning an Oscar would hardly change my life. But if I win, I’ll celebrate by doubling my dose of chocolate. Every night, I tend to have a bar – if I win, I’ll start having two!”
Marin-Catherine was especially pleased to note that the Oscars ceremony will take place on her birthday – and Holocaust Remembrance Day: “It’s an exquisite co-incidence!”
This article has been translated from the original in French.