Natan (born Natan Tannenzaft) should have been the Louis B. Mayer of France and
for a while he was. Unfortunately, a Jewish mogul helming the storied Pathé
film studio was more than the French establishment could handle. With the help
of a dubious “whistleblower” and an unfortunate secret in his past, the French
media destroyed Natan’s reputation and largely erased him from the cinema history
books. David Cairns & Paul Duane defend the groundbreaking producer from
malicious slander and historical neglect in their expressionistic documentary Natan (trailer here), which screens
during the 2015 New York Jewish Film Festival.
Natan lived in 1930s France and his doc was selected by the NYJFF, you can
probably guess why he is not capable of defending himself. He did indeed perish
in a German concentration camp, after the French authorities eagerly deported
him, but there is far more to the story than that.
was a Romanian Jew, who became a naturalized French citizen after honorably serving
his adopted country in WWI. He had an instinctive affinity for motion pictures,
scuffling his way from a projectionist and lab technician to a scrappy mini-magnate,
who acquired the famous Pathé brand when Charles Pathé decided to liquidate
rather than deal with the advent of sound. Unfortunately, while he was still a
desperately poor immigrant, Natan was convicted of peddling dirty movies. Much
will be made of this later, to the detriment of Natan’s historical standing.
though it is the last thing Natan would probably want, his docu-exoneration
will make you despise the French. It will not do much for most viewers’
estimation of film historians either, particularly those that specialize in “stag
films.” Frankly, as screenwriter, Cairns thoroughly persuades the audience to
consider Natan a mid-Twentieth Century Job, who was done wrong by nearly all
mind-blowing is the role of a rather unsavory figure named Robert Dirler, who
wormed his way onto the Pathé board to undermine Natan, despite his criminal
record and suspicious German connections. That last part gives one pause, does
it not? To their credit, Cairns & Duane do not overplay the conspiracy
card, but the shadowy Dirler clearly merits further research.
film also uses various stylistic strategies that are likely to be divisive. Cairns
& Duane often depict exaggerated re-enactments from Natan’s life, featuring
the producer with a large papier-mâché head, largely modeled on National
Socialist propaganda, including a famous exhibit in occupied Paris, prominently
featuring Natan. It is somewhat distractingly surreal at times, but there is an
underlying point to it. In fact, it makes Natan
considerably more distinctive visually than most documentaries.
The eerily sensitive score by Irish Alt band
Seti the First further distinguishes the production. Cairns & Duane also
incorporate plenty of clips from Natan’s acknowledged classics, such as Marco
de Gastyne’s La Merveilleuse Vie de
Jeanne d’Arc, but aside from Serge Bromberg (admittedly quite the fitting expert
commentator), the French cinema establishment is largely absent. It just makes
them look all the worse. In a mere sixty-seven minutes, the film assembles a
damnably convincing case that inspires rage and sorrow in equal measure. Anyone
who takes cinema seriously as an artistic and commercial endeavor really should
see it. Highly recommended, Natan
screens twice this Wednesday (1/28) at the Walter Reade Theater (with How to Break Into Yiddish Vaudeville) as
part of this year’s NYJFF.
Labels: Bernard Natan, Documentary, NYJFF '15