Designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was stunning, impeccably dressed, full of class and good graces. But beyond those coiffed eyebrows, she was also a Nazi collaborator and spy who shamelessly attempted to use anti-Jewish laws to appropriate a perfume company she never owned.
This story was told on screen for the first time at the premiere of “The No. 5 War,” a revealing new documentary by French filmmaker Stéphane Benhamou. The documentary screened at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival on Monday and Tuesday evenings for a heavily French-expat Jerusalem crowd. It will also be shown on Israel’s Channel 8 next month.
In a post-screening interview with The Times of Israel, Benhamou discussed his inspiration for the film.
“We knew Chanel had a German lover, we knew she lived in the Ritz, which was reserved for the Nazis, but there was never a bridge between these two things and what she did during the war. I wanted to tell the story of Chanel’s war activities through Chanel No. 5,” he said, “…to contrast her elegance as a woman and her behavior in the war.”
The 57-year-old Jewish filmmaker has been making documentaries for 20 years and lives with his family in Normandy. They travel to Israel at least twice a year.
The film follows Chanel’s morally tasteless wartime activities. In 1924 Chanel went into business with Jewish brothers Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, directors of the prominent perfume house, Bourjois, who agreed to fully back the Chanel No. 5 perfume, giving Chanel 10 percent ownership of the line — a stake she was not satisfied with. In 1927 the perfume became the world’s bestseller, increasing her resentment.
The year 1941 finds Coco Chanel living the good life as a permanent resident of the Ritz Hotel in German-occupied Paris. She has fallen in love with senior Nazi intelligence officer Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, who, at an appealing 13 years younger than the 57-year-old fashion mogul, is conveniently staying at the same hotel along with other high-ranking German officers.
When new German laws stripping Jews of their property rights are announced, Chanel hatches a plan to use them to take the company away from the brothers and instill herself as the proper “Aryan heir.” Unbeknownst to her, the Wertheimers had escaped to America in 1940, transferring their ownership of the company to Christian friend Felix Amiot, who also provided the Germans with military aircraft throughout the war.
Ultimately, France is liberated and the good guys emerge triumphant — but the viewer walks away not fully satisfied knowing that justice was never brought against Chanel.
On the contrary, after more than a dabble in Nazi intrigue and subterfuge, she walked away with her reputation intact and millions in revenue sent to her from the same former partners she once attempted to destroy.
But Benhamou is more optimistic. “There is morality to the story. She had everything going for her, and in the end she lost thanks to the bad guys,” he said, referring to the Nazi decision to have Amiot remain the legitimate Aryan head of the company.
Before you go and throw out all of your Chanel, it’s worth noting that the brand remains in full ownership of the Wertheimer family. This movie doesn’t take a position against the brand, Benhamou stressed.
Benhamou said he met resistance while filming from those interested in upholding the company name. “The economic power of the brand tries to keep this story silent,” he said.
A perfume expert refused an interview after reading the film’s synopsis and the filmmaker was denied access to Chanel’s jasmine supplier in Grasse due to the presumed harm the documentary could do to the brand.
The director noted it will be interesting to see how news outlets with advertising ties to Chanel react to the film, particularly since the release of the film coincides with the release of Chanel’s new perfume, “Gabrielle,” called after the founder’s first name.
Benhamou said he is often asked whether Chanel was really an anti-Semite or just business-minded.
“It’s not for me to say whether or not she was an anti-Semite,” he said, but pointed to her history of anti-Semitic lovers, close friends, causes and actions.
Coco Chanel once said, “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.”
While we continue to know Chanel for her style contributions, her Nazi activity is starting to be remembered as more than just an accessory to her legacy.