Saturday, October 12, 2013

Natan – The Untold Story of French Cinema's Forgotten Genius

NATAN – THE UNTOLD STORY OF FRENCH CINEMA’S FORGOTTEN GENIUS (Screenworks / The Arts Council / An Chomhaire Ealaíon, IE 2013) D, SC: David Cairns, Paul Duane; EX: Craig McCall; DP: David Cairns, Paul Duane, Rob Cawley, Louis-Joseph Auguste, Simone Fanthorpe, John Ebright; lighting camera: Scott Wald; ED: Eoin McDonagh; AD: Charles Suddaby; effetti grafici/graphic effects: Enda O’Connor; M: Seti the First; narr. (Natan voice-over): Gavin Mitchell; with: Lenny Borger, Serge Bromberg, Serge Klarsfeld, Françoise Ickowicz, Lenick Philippot [granddaughters of Natan], Gilles Willems, Frédéric Tachou, Bart Bull, Gisèle Casadeus, Joseph W. Slade - and with: Sophie Seydoux; DCP, 66'; source: Screenworks, Dublin, Ireland. English and French dialogue with English subtitles. Cinemazero (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone), with e-titles in Italian, 12 Oct 2013

David Robinson: "Bernard Natan, says one of the witnesses in this documentary, “has not been airbrushed out of history. He has been actively destroyed.” Natan Tanenzaft arrived in Paris from his native Romania in 1905, at the age of 19. Already crazy about the cinema, he worked as a projectionist and technician (briefly at Pathé), and was soon involved in independent production. In 1911 he had a set-back when he was one of a group of newsreel-makers convicted for “outrage des bonnes mœurs”: the nature of the offence was not specified, though later it was supposed it might have involved distribution of “gentlemen-only” films. He volunteered to fight in the First World War, and took on French citizenship as well as the name Bernard Natan. His company Rapid Film enjoyed success: its productions included the official filming of the 1924 Olympics and the spectacular La merveilleuse vie de Jeanne d’Arc, directed by the painter Marco de Gastyne. In 1929 he established France’s first television company, Télévision Baird-Natan. By the end of the 1920s Natan was able to take over Pathé, which was in a state of hastened decline, mainly thanks to Charles Pathé’s lack of confidence in the film business following the coming of sound. The company now became “Pathé-Natan”."

"Serge Bromberg compares Natan’s entrepreneurial genius to DeMille. Marcus Loew had said that talking films would permanently establish English as the universal language; but the confident and prolific production of Pathé-Natan in the early 1930s consolidated a powerful French-language cinema, which was to define and shape the whole future of the national cinema. Natan was tirelessly innovative. He revived Pathé’s defunct newsreel, but now with sound. He built new cinemas. He developed the home cinema market. Two decades before CinemaScope, Pathé-Natan exploited Henri Chrétien’s anamorphic lens, as “Hypergonar”, to make vertical as well as horizontal panoramic films. Natan’s initiative, skills, and success inevitably brought enemies, and by the mid-1930s he was the victim of vicious xenophobic and anti-Semitic campaigns, whose publications were comparable to those of the Nazis in Germany. It did not help that Pathé-Natan’s production of René Clair’s Le Dernier Milliardaire was seen as anti-Nazi and was banned in Germany. Not only was Natan attacked personally and racially, but the ambiguous conviction of 1911 was expanded into a mythical career as a pornographic producer and actor spanning the 1910s and 20s, unconvincingly demonstrated with frame stills purporting to show Natan himself as an erotic performer. This documentary shows how the story is perpetuated to the present by an Ohio academic, Joseph Slade – who states, with cautious afterthought, that his lovingly collected evidence proves that Natan “may or may not” have been a pornographer! Nevertheless, thanks largely to Slade, Natan is now generally written into the history of screen pornography."

"In 1935 the effects of the Great Depression finally hit Pathé, and left Natan to seek desperate and often injudicious strategies to save the day. A revolt of the shareholders was led by a certain Dirler, who was known to have connections with German cinema. Natan was charged with fraud on the strength of convoluted evidence of his handling of Pathé-Natan’s finances, and in 1939 was sentenced to imprisonment. He was released in 1942 and his French citizenship was withdrawn. Sent to the French holding camp at Drancy, Natan was considered an important enough detainee for special notification to be sent to Eichmann when he was transferred to Auschwitz, where he was to die, most likely in late 1943."

"Paul Duane and David Cairns’ film is determined to correct the still too easily received image of Bernard Natan as a cheat and pornographer – a person “actively destroyed” by history. The film takes stylistic risks in making Natan the autobiographical narrator, and intermittently representing him as a grotesquely masked personage. But this is only a link for a line-up of witnesses for his defence who are impressive and wholly convincing – notably Serge Bromberg, who can categorically contradict the “stag-film” attributions, while his own grandfather was sent, like Natan, to the notorious holding centre at Drancy. For all devotees of the golden age, however, the most moving moment of this tragic tale – and the last word on Natan – is the closing title, a simple statement by the granddaughter of Georges Méliès, Madeleine Malthête-Méliès." – David Robinson

AA: Bernard Natan belongs to the giants of French film history, perhaps not quite as forgotten as the film-makers say. A WWI hero, he founded Rapid Film, produced the first Olympic feature film (Les Jeux Olympiques 1924, in many ways one of the models for Leni Riefenstahl), was a pioneer of the "making of" (Autour de L'Argent), made commercials, newsreels, believed in television already in the 1920s, financed the original CinemaScope technology (Hypergonar), produced the epic La merveilleuse vie de Jeanne d'Arc, completely different from Carl Th. Dreyer's intimate and ascetic interpretation, believed in colour (Les Gaîtés de l'escadron with Raimu, Gabin, and Fernandel, in Pathécolor), and produced the most formidable French epics of the 1930s, Les Croix de bois and Les Misérables, both directed by Raymond Bernard. Serge Bromberg makes a strong case here that both films were especially personal projects for Bernard Natan. When Charles Pathé lost faith in the cinema Natan bought his company and made it successful during the adversities of the great crash and depression.

The perhaps most evil conspiracy in the history of cinema was then first the character assassination of Bernard Natan, followed by his physical destruction in the holocaust. He was framed as a pornographer and a swindler, and even his voice was distorted in newsreels to make him sound ridiculous. This movie is a strong entry in the history of the Jewish contribution to the cinema, and about the persecution of Jews in the cinema. The most moving moments are about the German occupation, the "Le Juif et la France" exhibition, and the Drancy story (Serge Bromberg: "my grandfather was there").

The film-makers have seen Gainsbourg by Joann Sfar and copied the idea of a masked Bernard Natan speaking in the first person from there. This device I find unnecessary. Although the film-makers rebut the accusations of Bernard Natan as a pornographer they devote quite a bit of screen time to juicy excerpts from pornographic films such as Sœur vaseline, Un cocktail bien servi, and Le Canard. Why?

Madeleine Malthête-Méliès tells that a stranger sent a check in 1922 to his impoverished grandfather Georges. That was the "discreet, generous, and practical Natan".

A perplexing, magnificent, and upsetting story.

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