The illustrious name of Bernard Natan (1886-1942) once the head of France’s renowned Pathé Studios, had long been forgotten until a series of unusual controversies brought the Romanian Jew into the public eye. In their film Natan, which screened at the 24th New York Jewish Film Festival, filmmakers David Cairns and Paul Duane attempt to elucidate the many facets of Bernard Natan’s character and confront the noxious controversies head on.
By the end of their documentary, Cairns and Duane have made a viable case that Natan should be celebrated as one of the most innovative film artists and entrepreneurs in France in the early twentieth century. Natan has left an amazing legacy that only a few recognize. This film is a step in the right direction in highlighting the accomplishments of this great man of the cinema.
In their documentary Cairns and Duane investigate Natan’s, history, identity and genius. In the process of elucidating Natan’s prodigious contributions to film, they also reveal Natan’s shadowy side, connected to an unfortunate arrest in 1911 for making what at the time was considered the first example of erotic films. The arrest was expunged and buried, but excavated in the latter 1930s, used against him by his enemies in a smear campaign after he had achieved power and success as the head of Pathé Studios.
The documentary examines the mysteries surrounding Natan’s ill fated persona as a silent film pornographer. Cairns and Duane attempt to reveal how questions about Natan’s character became threaded into the underlying tragedy of Natan’s fate at the hands of Vichy France, which used his power and his religion as ripening scapegoats in order to curry favor with the Nazi Party.
To unfold the facets of Natan’s identity and history, the filmmakers use a frame construct with a voiceover narrator, who traces Natan’s personal history, his cinematic career, his innovations, his rise to head of Pathé, and his purported and controversial unseemliness and downfall. Cairns and Duane detail Natan’s family history in clips, and faded, grainy black and white photographs while the socially urbane and brilliant Natan persona discusses his participation fighting for France in World War I, where he was decorated and was granted French citizenship for his valor. We are introduced to the respectable Natan, noting his early rise and knowledge and mastery of all aspects of film making. As a film innovator, he helped to revolutionize film technology around the world. In effect he established the foundation for the modern film industry in France.
It was his passion for the cinema that inspired Natan to move up the industry ladder from technician, cinematographer, director, producer, distributor, marketer. Along the route, Natan created his own companies (a successful and renowned film laboratory, and a marketing firm). He built two sound stages and was a producer and financier for other studios. He expanded his business opportunities and continued his innovations and operations after he bought Pathé Studios which was in financial trouble in 1929. Natan made it profitable from 1930-1935. He invested in research and developed new techniques in the art; he encouraged Pathé to embrace sound film (one of the first to do so). The studio released its first sound feature film in 1929, and its first sound newsreel a month later. He released over 60 feature films (as many as released by American studios). He reinstituted the newsreel Pathé-News which had not been produced since 1927 and he indulged his interest in creating companies that dealt with the up and coming communication industries, like radio and television.
Natan’s was a brilliant light, which burned intensely and then fizzled into an opaque fog as the press increasingly tarnished Natan’s endeavors with the grime of anti-semitic polemic. When one of the banks that Pathé borrowed money from failed, Natan attempted to save the company by using his own money to prevent it from bankruptcy. How he did this (shell companies), was painted as fraud, other charges were brought and Natan was indicted and imprisoned in 1939. He faced a second indictment in 1941 and was again convicted and his imprisonment extended. Through interviews with scholars, family and others, Cairns and Duane intimate that there were those in the company who were sympathetic to the Nazi party in Germany. They suggest that these individuals may have they fostered the anti-semitic Nazi propaganda against Natan in the press and may have promoted the scurrilous pornography slander and libel to exploit his troubles for their benefit. If that was their intent, they succeeded. Natan’s defamed image occluded his good works and genius. The discussion and unfortunate defamation that he had continued to produce pornography even after he was building a successful career in the industry remains today in a few academic circles. However, as more information is researched and intricately inspected, the facile notions of Natan as a pornographer are falling into disrepute.
By 1940, Natan’s beloved France had been conquered by Germany. Targeting Natan’s Jewishness the Vichy government rescinded the immigration laws for Romanians, ignoring Natan’s WWI decorations and decree of French citizenship. He was rendered “without country,” and sent to the Drancy internment camp in 1941 which was the transitional camp set up for Jews to be deported from France. In 1942 Natan was taken from Drancy, ordered onto a cattle car and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he died one of the numbered masses whose brilliance was ended before its time.
The record of Natan’s creative evolution as one of the most ingenious entrepreneurs of French film would have been erased, but a number of his films remain. How Cairns and Duane strike Natan’s arc to the pinnacle of power and career success which abruptly ended with his death in Auschwitz is an account that fascinates, shocks and raises questions. The filmmakers have been hampered because there is little information about Natan. Some of the time taken in the film deals with the erotic film clips that are allegedly Natan’s. This is the documentary’s low point, though one could argue it is necessary to reveal the shadows because increasingly time will out. Indeed, researchers have posited that once Natan was successful he turned his back on his early necessity of making erotic films.
Nevertheless, Cairns and Duane have contributed immeasurably to film study in revealing this account of a brilliant French film entrepreneur and great lover of the cinema. In this mission the filmmakers are at their apex.