Most documentaries have a sense of mission. Many want you to be aware of something, and, hopefully, DO something with your new-found knowledge. Natan, co-directed by Paul Duane and David Cairns, has such a strong sense of mission that by the end of it my blood was boiling and I wanted to start firing off letters of outrage to … whoever. It’s a shattering film, a film about character assassination and the importance of a man’s Name and what happens when his name is taken away from him and virtually erased from history. Deliberately.
Natan works on a slow burn which is one of its main strengths. It unfolds slowly over its 66 minutes, a work of investigative journalism, and as it becomes clear that a huge historical wrong has been committed – and that nobody seems to care or even be aware of it, the film starts feeling very very angry. Impassioned. In one fell swoop, it puts its cards on the table and tells us what it wants, what should be done. In a lesser film, this would feel didactic and preachy. In Natan it feels proper and right. You SHOULD be angry after seeing this film.
Bernard Natan was one of the pioneering geniuses of French cinema. Born a Romanian Jew, he was very patriotic towards his adopted country, he fought proudly in WWI, signing up on his own, and was also an entrepreneur and visionary. He saw the potential in cinema in its earliest days (the first decades of the 20th century). He saw further than other people did. He was not afraid of sound. He embraced it. He was fearful of Hollywood’s influence and was devoted to creating a purely French cinema, French movies for French people, and he saw that sound would be a boon in that direction. While other people were running scared, he pushed forward into new arenas. He helped revolutionize distribution. He ran the great French studio, Pathé, and during his reign it became known as Pathé-Natan.
But Bernard Natan has been erased from history. Erased from the posters which once bore his name. The story of why that happened, and how it came down, is devastating, and Cairns and Duane walk us through it, using a mix of clips from the great films of the Pathé-Natan area, interviews with Natan’s family members as well as academics and film historians, and, fascinatingly, “reconstructions”, with a stand-in for Natan wearing a giant grotesque papier-mâché mask, signing checks, creeping along the catwalks above the studio, turning in a circle. What the reconstructions do is to show how the man’s reputation was first savaged and then destroyed, leaving us with only the gossip and myths and innuendos from his downfall. 10 years ago, if you had Googled the man, you would have found only the gossip, repeated as truth, and Natan wants to act as a course-correction. It does.
In some ways, it reminds me of a little bit of what happened to Alexander Hamilton’s reputation following his death. He had been so hated in those final years, and he died so young, that his reputation was in the hands of his enemies. He was painted as a dangerous madman, a demagogue, a tyrant, and that situation stood for 200 years. Now, Alexander Hamilton was not erased entirely in the way Bernard Natan was. After all, he’s on our 10 dollar bill. But the stink surrounding him survived, and that re-examining process is still going on and much has been done to correct the record, or at least provide some nuance. Hamilton was a bigger visionary than Thomas Jefferson. We are living in Hamilton’s world now, not Jefferson’s, that’s how far he saw.
But the world doesn’t like an individual who sees farther than others. History does not treat such people kindly. We don’t like to be “shown up”. Someone who rises as high as Natan did, someone who was as smart, as driven, as far-seeing, has a giant target on his back. When he fell, he found himself with very few defenders.
This, of course, was complicated and intensified by the rise of Hitler and France’s shameful behavior in the 30s and 40s in regards to its Jewish citizens. Vichy France was an abomination and it was through the machinations of those in power, collaborating with the Germans, that Bernard Natan was destroyed. Natan, which literally digs through the archives to find records of all of this, is open and up front about Natan’s business practices, which were sometimes fraudulent. He was busted for that. He was held up as an example of the insidious nature of “the Jew” in French society, a poster boy for anti-Semitism. This is even more tragic when you realize just how patriotic Natan was, how devoted he was to France.
But the rumor that still surrounds his reputation, that still sullies him, is that he was an early maker of hard-core pornographic films and actually performed in many of them. This rumor has been repeated through the century, so that now it acts as a shorthand: “Oh yes, Bernard Natan, hard-core pornographer in the early days.” There is very little evidence that this was true at all. But the rumor remains. It helped destroy Natan and it helped erase him. The French people have never heard of him. This would be like Americans never hearing of Cecil B. DeMille, or D.W. Griffith or Samuel Goldwyn. What the hell would have had to happen to those gigantic names to make them vanish entirely from cultural memory?
Paul Duane is an Irish filmmaker and David Cairns is a blogger and screenwriter (his great blog is Shadowplay), and they sniffed out this story together, sensing that something was wrong or missing from the historical record. Neither of them speak a ton of French, so it was a daunting task to begin the research, but they both felt a sense of mission, a sense that this was a story that needed to be told.
Natan is an important film, and hopefully will open up what has been a closed conversation for over 70 years.
There is nothing more sacred than a man’s name. Bernard Natan’s name was taken from him. This situation must not stand.