Marthe is 96, but is still organising her busy agenda. We see her on the phone giving her name, explaining that the “H E” is silent – a detail who’s significance will only make itself clear later. In the past week she’s been in Wisconsin, the West Coast of the US and Europe. This is a typical week of globetrotting and recounting her experiences in the Second World War.
At nearly 90 minutes, this is very much a film of two halves. The first half is not boring – it couldn’t be with the lively Marthe at its centre – but at times it does seem slightly trivial. Let’s just say that there are a lot of scenes of Marthe and her husband Major asking about Wifi connections and complaining about the view from their hotel room.
We stay with it because of the incidental detail, especially as Marthe explains her remarkable early life. Growing up as a Jew in Lorraine, the family spoke just as much German as French. As war looked increasingly inevitable, the family moved further West, and after Vichy France was occupied Marthe became involved in helping people escape.
Both her fiancé and her sister died at the hands of the Nazis. Her fiancé, who was active in the resistance, was shot and her sister was deported. It was only at the end of the war, when Marthe first learned about concentration camps from survivors, that she realised what must have happened. Her sister either died in transport, or she would have been gassed as she had broken her leg trying to escape and would therefore have not been fit to work.
If this sounds slightly interesting, the film realises that the next part is way too fascinating to spend too much time on Marthe’s present-day travels. When France was liberated, Marthe applied to join the army. She was rejected as she had not been in the resistance. Previously, she had not been allowed to join the resistance as her papers had been faked. Also being short and blonde meant that she didn’t conform to the expected stereotype.
But when it became clear that she spoke fluent German, she was co-opted as a spy. Marthe Hofnung became Martha Ulbrich and was provided with more faked papers and a backstory that she was a German nurse looking for her boyfriend. After several failed attempts to cross through no-mans land, she went on her own through Switzerland to Freiburg. Her orders were to assess to mood of the German public and to find out what she could about military operations.
She lucked out when a German officer invited her to Westwall, an area that was supposed to be full of German soldiers, but had been abandoned in the face of the Allies’ advance. Not just that, but the officer later told her that German troops had not deserted but were hiding in the Black Forest. She rushed by foot, as she always had to, to the border to pass on the information to friendly farmers, who would send the news to Allied high command.
Following the war, she gained work as a nurse in Vietnam, then moved to the USA where she married Major, a scientific researcher, and worked as his assistant. She told no-one about her wartime escapades, nor of the various medals which she had been awarded. When she published her memoirs towards the start of the Millennium, Major said that he was reading 80% of the information for the very first time.
After the book was released, Major and Marthe’s roles reversed. He had to carry her bags, while she travelled the world recounting her experiences and meeting foreign dignitaries. She seems most happy when dealing with school classes, passing on the tragic experiences of her generation to people who she hopes will not have to repeat them.
When asked to tell adults how to behave, she seems more reticent, not seeing it as her role. But she does say one thing: “I always tell the kids not to take orders that violate your own conscience. I think we should all live like this”. This is a remarkable story about a remarkable woman. The fact that it takes a while to get going doesn’t make it anything less than compelling.