Sunday, May 04, 2014


2013, Ireland, directed by David Cairns and Paul Duane

Natan is as much essay as strict historical document, partly no doubt because of the challenges of presenting a subject who has been either written out of history or, perhaps even more complicated, re-written within history. It's a challenge not made easier by the apparent lack of cooperation from a latter-day guardian of a precious trove of rare documents, too.

Central to the essay, obviously enough, is the person of Bernard Natan, the entrepreneur and innovator who transformed the fortunes of Pathé-Natan in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but the film also engages with the broader history of the French film industry in the pre-war era, French antisemitism both before and after the Occupation, the problems of academic scholarship and the nature of historical memory -- as exemplified, among other things, by the fact that Natan's name has disappeared from the very building where he worked in the 1920s.

Natan's story is in a sense both unique and routine -- Natan's particular path through life is fascinating, from his arrival in Paris in the early 1900s to his success as a film producer, but his ultimate downfall owed a great deal to the simple fact of his Jewishness, an inheritance that was used straightforwardly to condemn men, women and children irrespective of the details of their lives in France in the 1930s and 1940s.

Though Natan himself was a complicated figure, who probably engaged in a certain degree of financial sleight of hand in his business dealings -- something to which the country was especially sensitive in the aftermath of the Stavisky affair -- as the film makes abundantly clear, he was singled out for his origins, and even battle wounds in the Great War could not ultimately grant him standing as a Frenchman. Everything that could be flung at him was -- his Jewishness, rumours that he acted in early pornographic films, suggestions that he had somehow taken advantage of Charles Pathé (no stranger to complex business operations and holding companies himself).

Cairns and Duane stitch together a remarkable amount of material in barely an hour, and I occasionally wanted more in one direction or another, though that may reflect the limitations of the available materials. They spend a good deal of time debunking -- thoroughly and necessarily -- the gossip about Natan appearing in porn films, including footage from a variety of stag films of the period, which has the slightly unfortunate effect of leaving that as one of the more dominant mental images from the film.

By contrast, the beguiling sequences of behind-the-scenes footage from the soundstages of Pathé-Natan provide a remarkable window into early sound film in France, very vividly underlining Natan's importance to the period (and they give those scenes a moving gloss by adding a layer of imaginative reconstruction in which we see Natan watching the work in his studio from on high). Indeed, these extracts emphasize just how outsize his contributions were and thus just how thoroughly the historical record was re-written by those who, at least for a time, controlled the levers of power in France. There's also an exceptionally affecting moment where the film makes use of more recent technical innovations to restore Natan's voice to its actual timbre, rather than the deliberately ridiculous version circulated at the time of one of his trials -- a fine tribute to a man so instrumental in pushing the French industry to embrace the coming of sound.

The film suggests an avenue, too, for the viewer to channel his or her anger at the destruction of Natan as a man and a memory -- pushing further to research and restore his importance to his industry, seeking out further testimony from that period of remarkable creative ferment, correcting a historical record far too skewed and too-little examined. In that spirit, one could hope, for instance, that Natan's name gets a mention at the screenings of Raymond Bernard's remarkable, and recently restored, Les Croix de bois at Cannes this May. If that occurs, it will at least in part be due to the efforts of Cairns and Duane to grant Natan his due.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States