Jews in the News: French Cinema Guy Unknown

Jews in the News: French Cinema Guy Unknown

This is a reprint of an article from



The Chronicle of Higher Education


, L’affaire Natan, about a little known story given new life, the Dreyfus affair of French cinema. “Natan”, a new documentary from Ireland by the
filmmakers David Cairns and Paul Duane, sketches in the full and fascinating picture—enumerating Natan’s achievements, debunking the allegations, and
reconstructing a legacy lost to malign neglect. Entitled Nazis, French Port and Film Studies: Bernard Natan’s Strange Saga, by Thomas Doherty, chair of the
American-studies program at Brandeis University whose most recent book is Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press, 2013).


Nazis, French Porn, and Film Studies: Bernard Natan’s Strange Saga

By Thomas Doherty

Mention Bernard Natan to even the most obsessive connoisseur
of French cinema and you’re liable to get a blank stare. If recognized
at all, the
name might call up a vague association with sleaze and
scandal. “Natan“, a new documentary from Ireland by the
filmmakers David Cairns and Paul Duane, sketches in the full and fascinating
picture—enumerating Natan’s achievements, debunking the allegations, and
reconstructing a legacy lost
to malign neglect.

Natan, né Natan Tannenzapf, was a Romanian Jew who
immigrated to Paris in 1905 and went on to become a titan of French
film, a man whose brand
name, for a time, rivaled that of Gaumont and Pathé,
founding fathers of le cinéma français. At once media visionary and
rapacious entrepreneur, he
burned bright over the City of Lights until an arrest for
fraud sent him crashing to earth. Following a sensational trial laced
with xenophobia and
anti-Semitism, he was sentenced to four years in the Prison
de la Santé, in Paris, which is where the Nazis found him. Shipped to
Auschwitz, Natan
perished in 1943 and promptly vanished—or was he
erased?—from historical memory.

Natan seeks to undo the second injustice. At a brisk 66
minutes, it unspools like a much shorter, cinema-centric version of
Marcel Ophuls’s epic
documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), the searing
j’accuse that vaporized the glorious myth of consensual French
resistance during the Nazi
occupation. Francophilic cinephiles are sometimes afflicted
with a similar case of selective amnesia, hailing the subversive frisson
of Marcel
Carné’sChildren of Paradise (1945) while forgetting the
collaborationist filmmakers who adapted to the new regime without
missing a beat. A
different kind of film noir, Natan unravels the knots in
three interlacing threads: the nature of history (whom do we remember
and whom do we
choose to forget?), the tenacity of French anti-Semitism
(where the indigenous variant proves a congenial blend with the imported
vintage from
Germany), and (here’s where things get strange) the archival
shadows of pornography flickering in film studies.

The outlines of Natan’s biography read like a Gallic version
of an American rags-to-riches story featuring a colorful hustler who
might have fit in
well with the moguls who built an empire of their own in
Hollywood. A self-made Frenchman, perhaps in nothing so much as his
passion for the
emerging art of the century, Natan arrived in Paris when the
city was still reeling from the actualités of Auguste and Louis Lumière
and the
prestidigitation of Georges Méliès. Hitting the ground floor
running, Natan took any gig available: lab worker and projectionist,
tripod carrier
and camera-cranker, and, in 1910, an outré credit—probably
on a nudie film—that earned him a hefty fine and jail time for
trafficking in obscene
material. Still, he assimilated with a vengeance, marrying a
French Catholic and enlisting in the French army during the Great War.
His heroic
service at the front was his passport to French citizenship;
it also got the prewar bust for obscenity expunged from his record.

Mustered out, Natan assumed a prominent role in rebuilding
an industry left prostrate by the Great War and plowed under by
Hollywood imports. He
acquired exclusive rights to film the 1924 Olympic Games in
Paris, built high-quality processing plants for developing and duping
prints, and moved
into the production of top-line features, most notably the
patriotic blockbuster The Marvelous Life of Joan of Arc (1929), directed
by Marco de
Gastyne. Both a detail-oriented manager and a big-picture
man, Natan kept a hand in all ends of the business, from the chemicals
used in the labs
to the interior design of the theaters.

Even before the onset of sound, in 1927, Charles Pathé had
lamented that there was no more money to be made from motion pictures.
Natan knew
better. In 1929 he bought out Pathé—whose “crowing rooster”
logo was as much an emblem of ur-Frenchness as the Eiffel Tower—and,
under the name
Pathé-Natan, set about consolidating his various holdings
into a vertically integrated business, a streamlined system of
production, distribution,
and exhibition, just like the major Hollywood studios. To a
remarkable extent, he succeeded—creating big-budget, must-see feature
films, building a
fleet of ornate theaters, and bringing technical innovations
like sound and Technicolor to the French screen. Among the 70 or so
feature
attractions produced under his shingle are two enduring
classics by the director Raymond Bernard: Wooden Crosses (1932), a grim,
trench-level slog
through the Great War, and Les Misérables (1934), a prestige
literary adaptation that, as the documentarians Duane and Cairns
cannily note,
probably had a personal reverberation for Natan, with its
theme of a powerful man haunted by a petty crime from his past.

So far, so business-as-usual, not unlike a TCM documentary
on Jack Warner or Louis B. Mayer. But then the story detours into a
distinctly French
quarter. In December 1938, at the height of his power, Natan
was hobbled by two indictments, that he was a swindler and a Jew. He
could mount a
defense against only one. More-scandalous allegations were
whispered—actually, in the right-wing press, shouted: that Natan’s
long-ago brush with
the law was no youthful indiscretion but part of a pattern
of perversity. Despite his high profile and respected position, the
coverage suggested,
the slick foreigner was still peddling pornographic films to
an underground market of like-minded lechers. The charges were straight
from the
playbook of the Nazi propagandists, echoing the
double-barreled libels of Julius Streicher’s anti-Semitic rag Der
Stürmer, where the Jew was
depicted as an invasive virus sucking the life out of the
body politic while defiling the purity of the native bloodline.

Unfolding from January to June 1939, trumpeted in lurid
press headlines, the criminal case against Natan involved cooked books,
stock manipulation,
and dummy holding companies. In brief, he was accused of
robbing his own company blind and cheating the stockholders. He
confessed to manipulating
funds—but only, he insisted, to keep his company afloat, not
to bilk the stockholders. Unmoved, the court sentenced him to four
years in prison. In
1940, under the Third Republic and still before the Nazi
invasion, the sentence was extended to five years. The next year, a
Vichy court deprived
him of the French citizenship he had won during the Great
War. When the Nazis requested custody of Natan (according to the French
Holocaust
historian Serge Klarsfeld, Natan was one of only two French
Jews targeted by name, the other being Léon Blum, the former prime
minister), the Vichy
authorities readily complied. As the French film historian
Georges Sadoul remarked, Natan’s prison cell served as the “antechamber
to the oven of
the crematorium.”

The obvious French back story to l’affaire Natan is the case
of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army captain whom the French military
railroaded into
Devil’s Island on a trumped-up charge of treason in 1895.
“You might call this the Dreyfus affair of cinema,” says the director
and actor Frédéric
Tachou. But the criminal charges against Natan are a bit
harder to disentangle. In 1940, the Hollywood trade paper Variety, which
had no dog in the
fight, reviewed what it called “the largest scandal ever
recorded in the French cinema world” and came down hard on the man in
the cross hairs of
the French justice system: Natan “built up a monster
organization without sound financial foundation and it collapsed of its
own dead weight,
although it required more than 10 years to bring him to
justice.”

Nonetheless, a cadre of French film historians has been
adamant that Natan was set up; that, despite his confession, he was no
less a victim of
anti-Semitic hysteria than Dreyfus. André Rossel-Kirschen,
Natan’s nephew and the author of Pathé-Natan: the True History,
published in France in
2004, attacked the legend of the “swindler Natan” as a smear
by greedy business interests seeking to gain control of a company that
was not a
hollowed-out shell but a solid moneymaker—that, in fact, was
always in the black. The French historian Gilles Willems, another
diligent researcher
in the archives of Pathé, also scorns “the tenacious legend”
regarding “the Jewish swindler of Romanian descent, Bernard Natan, who
acquired the
great Pathé firm the better to pillage it.”

For film scholars lacking a CPA license, the labyrinthine
bookkeeping trail is difficult to follow—a confirmation of the cynical
Hollywood adage
that the most creative people in the motion-picture business work in the
studios’ accounting departments. In a blog post
on the making of the documentary, the
filmmaker Cairns offers what seems a measured appraisal:
that Natan “did more good than harm” in the annals of French cinema, and
that whatever the
nature of his financial malfeasance, he “was scapegoated and
punished with a grotesque severity.”

Ironically, after getting little more than a footnote in
most chronicles of the French cinema, Franco or Anglophone, it would be
the more
scandalous charge that rescued Natan from his cruel fade to
black. In 1993, Joseph W. Slade, a professor of media and culture at
Ohio University,
published an article in the Journal of Film and Video with
the come-hither title

“Bernard Natan: France’s Legendary Pornographer.”

The piece was both salacious and, as it turned out,
propitious. Slade was a pioneer in what has since morphed into a
full-blown subfield of cinema
studies—porn studies. Jump-started by the University of
California at Berkeley film professor Linda Williams’s Hard Core: Power,
Pleasure, and the
‘Frenzy of the Visible,’ published in 1989, and lent
momentum by her edited collection, Porn Studies, in 2004, the close
textual examination of
pornography has turned from what was, not so long ago, an
indictable offense into an au courant career path in the academy.
Feminist critics
especially have cultivated a nonprurient interest in porn,
seeing in the raw footage an unfiltered lens into the male—and
female—psyche, not to say
physique.

Despite smirking from the mainstream press, few media
scholars today would argue that a multibillion-dollar industry that has
thrived since the
dawn of cinema is not worthy of serious scrutiny and
archival excavation. That consensus is confirmed by the steady inroads
of a series of
exceptionally well-attended panels at annual meetings of the
Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and, this spring, the debut of
Porn Studies, an
academic journal devoted to all things triple-X. If
anything, the mainstreaming of porn in media studies has lagged behind
its mainstreaming on the
motion-picture screen, cable, and the web.

Slade’s article certainly resurrected Natan—not as a
forgotten giant of the French film industry, but rather as a priapic
smut merchant. Slade
charged that even as Natan was consolidating his aboveboard
cinematic empire, he “unquestionably turned out some of the most
historically
significant hard-core footage made during the silent era.”
More than that, Slade contended that Natan was a featured player in many
of the films,
exuberantly joining in with the sadomasochism, sodomy, and
bestiality. “Natan’s dapper, slightly vulpine figure, capable of
stalking or mincing as
the role demanded, suited the storylines,” he asserted. No
prude himself, Slade frankly admired the sheer épater le bourgeois of
Natan’s risky
moonlighting, pointing out that “as a pornographer,” Natan
“parodied a bland, reactionary mainstream cinema.”

The French, who love a good trans-Atlantic donnybrook over
cinema more than a Gitane after dinner, took to the
conference-journal-and-cyberspace
barricades to defend Natan’s honor. None have been more
tenacious than the archivist Brigitte Berg, director of Les Documents
Cinématographiques in
Paris, who on the website Les indépendants du premier siècle,
blasted
Slade’s “poor knowledge of both the
man Bernard Natan and the French cinema in general” and
accused him of “slander,” “fantasies,” and (the mildest cut) “a rich
imagination.”
(Unfortunately, Berg played no role in Natan, because of
creative/scholarly/economic differences with the filmmakers.)

Natan resolves the fracas with a montage worth a thousand
monographs: the first extended unreeling of Natan’s alleged on-screen
acrobatics.
Inarguably, the glimpses of proto-porno from the prewar,
silent era possess redeeming archival value, from the posed nudes in
nickelodeon-era stag
films (pretty much the kind of mild erotica you might see on
a visit to the Louvre) to the hard-core coupling, and tripling, of the
1920s and
1930s. The most shocking snippet (I have never seen anything
like it and, if I had, I wouldn’t admit it) features a randy swain
engaging in sexual
congress with a mallard. (The French title—Le Canard—sounds
far more genteel than the rhyming imperative that is its English
billing.) “The ugliest
film I have ever seen in my life,” says the archivist Serge
Bromberg. “We didn’t want to restore it.”

But, of course, the best argument for restoration is that
without being able to eyeball the primary source, the canard against
Natan would persist.
Freeze-framing and telescoping in on close-ups of the actor,
the filmmakers compare the visage of the energetic star in the French
porn with
contemporaneous pictures of Natan, plainly showing that the
men are not one and the same. The accusation always sounded
unlikely—sort of as if
David O. Selznick used his off time during Gone With the
Wind (1939) to cavort in blue movies shot in 16mm down in the Valley. On
camera, Slade now
concedes that there may be reasonable doubt as to the
identity of the performer and to Natan’s filmography in pornography. “I
do not now believe
that Natan performed in the films,” he wrote me in an email,
“but I do think it is likely that he was involved in their making.”
Although he finds
Natan “somewhat maudlin,” he is “delighted that Natan is at
last getting the attention he deserves, attention long denied him
because of the
anti-Semitism that has for so long erased him from French
film history.”

It is odd, though, that a story that hits so many of the
buttons of film scholarship—and that is this juicy—has been for so long
so forgotten. “I
don’t think he has been airbrushed out” of history, says the
writer Bart Bull in Natan. “I think he has been deliberately
destroyed.” Yet it’s hard
to gauge how much of the history in any field just slips
down the rabbit hole of memory—like say, the story of the unheralded
pioneers of American
film, Harry and Roy Aitken, who produced The Birth of a
Nation (1915)—and how much results from willful acts of historical
erasure. However, one
can see why historians of French cinema would rather
remember the glory that was the cinéma français than they would the
political, cultural, and
business sadism, the bigotry and hypocrisy, not to mention
the seediness intertwined with the triumphs in the story of Bernard
Natan.

Appropriately, the most inspired sequence in Natan is also a work of restoration, though not of a pornographic film, at least not as usually
defined. A newsreel clip shows Natan in the dock in 1941, at the trial that stripped him of his citizenship, a sequence that Ophuls also unspooled
inThe Sorrow and the Pity. “This is not a comedy,” sputters Natan, trying to hide from the cameras. “This is a tragedy.” Produced by none other
than Pathé Cinema, by then a tool of the Nazi occupation, the newsreel dubs in a panicky high-pitched voice for Natan, to make the outcast Jew
sound like a squealing rat. Duane and Cairns correct the distortion, rewinding the clip with Natan’s real voice on the soundtrack. “You can hear
his real voice in another clip used in the film where he’s telling architects what he wants in his cinemas,” Duane told me in an email. “We
pitch-shifted the sped-up voice in the trial newsreel until it was closer to the way he really sounded.”

The gesture neatly demonstrates that if film can distort and delete history, it can also restore and repair it. “The man is dead,” says the
narrator at the beginning of Natan. “Even his memory has been destroyed.”

No more.

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