Stephane Benhamou’s intriguing documentary, The No. 5 War, scheduled to be screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on May 6 and May 8, is centered around Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel, the Parisian fashion designer whose name is synonymous with Chanel No. 5, which, for a while after its debut in 1921, was the world’s most popular perfume.
The production of this heavenly fragrance was financed by two Jewish investors, Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, in association with Theophile Bader, the Jewish proprietor of the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris.
Under their agreement, Chanel was to receive 10 percent of the profits. This suited her well until she felt cheated and declared war on the Wertheimers. With Germany’s occupation of France and the formation of the collaborationist Vichy regime in 1940, the Wertheimers fled to the United States, entrusting the business to longtime associate Felix Amiot, an aircraft manufacturer.
As part of its anti-Jewish edicts, Vichy appropriated, or Aryanized, Jewish businesses. Using these laws to her advantage, Chanel tried to wrest back Chanel No. 5 from the Wertheimers. Was she a collaborator or an opportunist? Benhamou examines this issue in this fast-paced movie.
Chanel No. 5 was inspired by Chanel’s lover, a Russian aristocrat, and produced by a Russian-French perfumer, Ernest Beaux. The signature perfume, snapped up by buyers, attracted the attention of the Wertheimer brothers. Its sales made Chanel fabulously rich, but she thought she was entitled to a greater portion of the profits.
Chanel’s demand strained her relationship with the Wertheimers, who evicted her from the board of directors. Following the outbreak of World War II, German aircraft bombed Chanel No. 5 factories in France and Britain. Without informing Chanel, the Wertheimers “sold” the company to Amiot, further enraging her.
Around this time, she fell madly in love with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German intelligence officer 13 years her junior. Stationed in Paris, he lived in the same hotel as her, the five-star Ritz.
Back in the United States, the Wertheimers reestablished Chanel No. 5 after secretly buying one of the essential ingredients of the perfume, jasmine from the French province of Grasse. The perfume sold like hot cakes and went from being a luxury item to an affordable one for the masses. Chanel, a snob who had in the meantime launched a new perfume, was livid.
Von Dincklage encouraged Chanel to work for Germany as a spy in exchange for his promise to help her reassert control of Chanel No. 5. But when she attempted to do so by means of Vichy’s antisemitic laws, she was surprisingly rebuffed. The reason was clear. Amiot, the “owner” of the firm, had been manufacturing airplanes for the German Air Force and the Germans did not want to offend him.
With the liberation of Paris in August 1944, Chanel was arrested on charges of collaborating with the enemy. Thanks to an old friend, Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, she was quickly released and, in effect, exonerated.
Chanel went into exile in Switzerland and Von Dincklage joined her there. Much to her astonishment, a big fat check for $9 million arrived in the mail from the Wertheimers for the sales of Chanel No. 5 in the United States. From that point forward, she would receive multimillion dollar royalties. At their invitation, she returned to Paris, her feud with the Wertheimers having ended.
Chanel was clearly a German collaborator. But there are gaps in the film that Benhamou does not bother addressing. Was Chanel an antisemite, whether ideological or pragmatic? Why was she not prosecuted, like so many French turncoats? How did she manage to buff up her postwar image? Why were the Wertheimers so forgiving?
These are questions that Benhamou should have examined.