Note: This is the third of three articles on this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.
One of the comforting aspects of a film festival designed around a theme is that there will be certain familiar standbys. With the New York Jewish Film Festival, wrapping up its 24th annual event, one is drawn to two regular aspects of home cooking: the presence of a director who can be counted on for a reliably intelligent film, and the inevitable documentaries about Jews in the performing arts.
This year’s event is no exception, with documentaries about the larger-than-life Sophie Tucker and a powerful force in interwar French cinema, and a new work from Daniel Burman, “The Mystery of Happiness.”
Burman is the Argentine director of “Lost Embrace,” “Family Law” and “Empty Nest,” among others. He is a whimsical, low-key teller of shaggy-dog stories about the Jews of Buenos Aires that keep coming back to the tenuous but invaluable connections that human beings build as a fortress against loneliness. Although he is frequently compared to Woody Allen, his characters have none of the smug, glib solipsism that mar much of Allen’s work.
Instead, Burman has been moving steadily into a gently comic mode in which the rhythms of daily life replace the contrivances of plot that have disfigured the American romantic comedy — something we used to do better than anyone else in the world.
“The Mystery of Happiness” centers on a couple of business partners, Santiago (Guillermo Francella) and Eugenio (Fabian Arenillas). Friends since boyhood, they are so totally in sync that the opening of the film is a veritable dance number in which their daily routine unfolds in perfect harmony from the opening of their car doors to their lunch and exercise routines. Then one day, Eugenio simply vanishes, leaving Santiago to deal with the daily exigencies of their appliance store, a too-generous buy-out offer from strangers and Eugenio’s pill-popping, ditzy wife Laura (Ines Estevez). Where is Eugenio, and why has he disappeared?
One can easily envision a Disneyfied take filled with self-consciously wacky “business” and a teeth-grittingly cute supporting cast. But that is not what interests Burman. Rather, he allows the plot, such as it is, to meander gracefully and slowly. His middle-aged, middle-class protagonists must assume the responsibilities incumbent on them, while following a not terribly difficult trail that may lead to the missing business partner/husband. The humor is omnipresent and quite charming, but it is muted so that the evolution of the characters grows not out of the situations but out of the internal logic of their personalities. The result is a film of great warmth and compassion more reminiscent of Eric Rohmer and Nanni Moretti than of recent ramshackle Hollywood laugh-machinery.
“Natan” is an Irish documentary about a Romanian-born French Jew who was one of the prime moving forces of French cinema in the 1920s and ’30s. Born Natan Tanenzapf, he came to France with his family in 1905. Although motion pictures were barely a decade old as art and industry, the 19-year-old was drunk with the mention of them, and he resolved to make his way in the business.
He landed a series of jobs at the Pathé Corporation and changed his name to the more Gallic Bernard Natan. Then in 1910 he fell afoul of the law, being 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 light — four months in jail and a thousand-franc fine — but he was threatened with deportation as a non-citizen.
That threat must have stung. Natan had lived in France for almost as long as he had lived in Romania, and he thought of himself as a Frenchman. When war broke out, although he still was not a citizen, he volunteered for the French Army, was wounded and awarded the Croix de Guerre. He became 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 that won a commission to film the 1924 Olympics, formed an artistic alliance with director Marco de Gastyne, culminating in the success of “The Marvelous Life of Joan of Arc,” and partnered with Pathé — renamed Pathé-Natan — under whose auspices he experimented with 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 about to fall on him.
Natan had always been perilously under-capitalized. A phony stockholders’ group led by a Nazi sympathizer bludgeoned its way into the upper echelons of the corporation. Then Natan’s past resurfaced, and in the battle that followed he became a target for the right-wing press as a Jew and a pornographer. 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 and released from prison to the transit camp at Drancy. From there it was a short trip to Auschwitz and death.
And also a kind of oblivion until Joseph Slade, a film professor at Ohio University, published an essay 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, and Cairns and Duane have chosen some distractingly arty touches to structure the film. But the story is told well, and there can be no doubt about Natan’s centrality in French film history or his victimization by French and German anti-Semites.
Sophie Tucker is not nearly as forgotten in America as Bernard Natan has been in France. At the very least she is name-checked frequently in documentaries about Jewish musical performers, although her fans are dwindling as generations pass. The self-anointed “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” Tucker was one of those rare white performers from the era of vaudeville, musical theater and radio who could phrase and swing like an African-American singer, anticipating such jazz-influenced greats as Crosby and Sinatra. At the same time, she dealt in an occasionally schmaltzy brand of Yiddish-American corn that maintained her huge Jewish fan base.
“The Outrageous Sophie Tucker,” directed by William Gazecki and produced by Tucker biographers, fans and narrators Susan and Lloyd Ecker, is a valentine to the late entertainer PERIOD from two dedicated fans. Tucker’s legacy has been preserved in no small part by artists like Bette Midler who have paid tribute to her in performance, and Midler is given a generous shout-out by the Eckers, but the film cries out for some of Miss M’s hot-cha. Too often we are left with breathless assertions of Tucker’s greatness rather than hard evidence. The film feels like it was written by the Jewish equivalent of Trekkies, and it desperately needs more grounding in the history of American entertainment and more footage of Tucker herself. Having Michael Feinstein explain her appeal is no substitute for the real deal, and animations from Tucker’s copious scrapbooks merely serve to remind us what is missing from the film.
The 24th annual New York Jewish Film Festival, produced by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, runs through Jan. 29. Screenings will take place at the Walter Reade Theater and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, both located on West 65th Street in Lincoln Center. For more information, go to www.filmlinc.com.