How many times can you murder a man? The Nazis, aided by the French government, killed Bernard Natan in Auschwitz in 1943. It took an American professor of film studies to kill him the second time by impugning his legacy as a film producer and studio head.
That is the story told by a new Irish documentary, “Natan,” which has its New York premiere on Jan. 19.
Directed by David Cairns and Paul Duane, “Natan” is a compact piece of storytelling, just over an hour in length. It recounts an almost lost piece of French film history, the story of the rise of a Romanian Jew named Natan Tanenzapf, who came to France with his family in 1905. Although motion pictures were barely a decade old, the 19-year-old Tanenzapf was drunk with the very mention of them, and he resolved to make his way in the business.
He would land a series of jobs at the Pathé Corporation, first as a lab chemist, then a projectionist. And he would change his name to the more French-sounding Bernard Natan. Then in 1910 he fell afoul of the law; it was never clear exactly what his role was, but Natan was arrested for “distribution and sale of indecent images.” Cairns and Duane believe his part was limited to some lab work, but the charge would come back to haunt him both before and after his death. The sentence was four months in jail and a thousand-franc fine, but more he was threatened with deportation as a non-citizen.
That threat must have stung. Natan thought of himself as a Frenchman. When war broke out four years later, although he still was not a citizen, he volunteered for the French Army, served with distinction, was wounded and awarded the Croix de Guerre. Finally, he would become a French citizen in 1921.
The war left Europe’s once-burgeoning film industries in ruins. The opportunity for a bright, energetic young man with a large vision was obvious, and Natan threw himself into the rebuilding of French cinema with resolve and innovation. He began a company, Rapid Film, which specialized in sports movies, eventually winning a commission to film the 1924 Olympics.
He would form an artistic partnership with director Marco de Gastyne, culminating in the success of “The Marvelous Life of Jeanne D’Arc.” He became co-owner of a studio, forming Pathé-Natan, and experimented with early color, sound and even widescreen processes.
Natan had become, as the film puts it, “a foreigner and a Jew tied to the greatest French name in film.” He would produce important work by great filmmakers — Raymond Bernard, Maurice Tourneur, Marcel L’Herbier, René Clair. He built over 50 new theaters and produced 65 films. But the ceiling was going to come down soon.
Apparently, Natan had always been perilously under-capitalized. A phony stockholders group led by a Nazi sympathizer named Robert Dirler bludgeoned its way into the upper echelons of the corporation. Then Natan’s past resurfaced and in the battle that followed the giddy days of the Popular Front, he became, as a Jews and a pornographer, a target for the right-wing press When Pathé-Natan went bankrupt in 1938, Natan found himself on trial for fraud. Convicted, he was sentenced to prison and, when the French surrendered to Hitler two years later, he was still in prison. He would be stripped of his citizenship, released from prison and immediately sent to the transit camp at Drancy. From there it was a short trip to Auschwitz and death.
And a kind of oblivion until years later, when Joseph Slade, a film professor at Ohio University, published an essay in the Journal of Film and Video in 1993 in which he claimed that Natan’s work included an extensive body of early hard-core pornography. The filmmakers suggest that Slade’s documentation for his claims is rather murky, based on the vague resemblance between the appearance of a frequent performer in some scabrous sex films and Natan’s rather distinctive features. On the basis of the film clips shown, it looks like a reach, and Slade equivocates shamelessly in recent interview footage.
But the damage was done to what little remained of Natan’s reputation.
“Natan” is a deft, economical attempt to resurrect his standing as a central figure in one of the most creative periods in French film history. The film is a bit unsteady on its feet when it comes to Natan’s financial manipulations; although he was under considerable pressure from Dirler and other anti-Semitic forces in the industry, the central maneuver in his attempt to keep the company afloat was clearly illegal. Cairns and Duane have chosen some arty touches, oddly reminiscent of Joann Sfar’s “Gainsbourg,” to structure the film, particularly the recurring image of a “false” Natan, wearing a mask that resembles the anti-Semitic cartoon version of the real man. While the conceit works sporadically, it is ultimately a distraction.
But the story is told well, and there can be no doubt about Natan’s centrality to the history of French film, or his victimization by French and German anti-Semites.
“Natan,” by David Cairns and Paul Duane, will be shown on Sunday, Jan. 19 at 4 p.m. at the Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Ave., Astoria, Queens). For information, call (718) 777-6888 or go to www.movingimage.us.