Thursday, 8 May 2014

NATAN - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Toronto Jewish Film Festival 2014 (TJFF 2014) - French Cinema's Pioneer


Natan (2013) ****
Dir. David Cairns and Paul Duane
Writ. David Cairns, Prod. Paul Duane

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Antisemitism is responsible for erasing the memory of Bernard Natan. He was, in many ways, the Father of French Cinema as we now know and love it. This visionary Romanian-Jew who made Paris his home from childhood onwards was eventually the victim of Nazi genocide in Auschwitz, but if there can be anything more horrific than that, the legacy of Bernard Natan was first tarnished by a series of Vichy-and-Nazi-orchestrated smear campaigns, prosecutions and persecutions, but has further been obliterated from the history books by the sullying at the hands of American academic Joseph W. Slade at Ohio University who proclaimed and furthered the myth that Natan was not only a pornographer, but in fact, acted in the hard-core films he purportedly produced, engaging in on-screen sexual acts including bestiality.

To say this is appalling is an understatement of enormous proportions and we must bless and kiss the ground walked on by filmmakers David Cairns and Paul Duane for making the film Natan and righting the wrongs that so many have never bothered to even think about doing.

The film details a bevy of important facts about Natan, beginning with his arrival in Paris as Natan Tannenzaft and his early years working as a lab technician and projectionist in the burgeoning motion picture industry. Changing his name to Bernard Natan, we're given what few facts remain about Natan's involvement in pornography and frankly, other than being charged and convicted with several other individuals for the distribution of obscene materials, it's clear the young man was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Besides, even if he had been peripherally or directly involved in the manufacture of pornographic films, one could surely condemn a long list of important filmmakers for such scabrous activities including everyone from Francis Ford Coppola's early foray into film via a nudie feature The Bellboy and the Playgirl, to a highly esteemed Canadian mogul who once demanded that a young art-film director in his charge add more "woman on woman" action to his film because "the man [who goes to the movies] likes the woman with the woman, but more importantly, the woman [who goes to the movies] loves the woman with the woman, too." (And full disclosure, lest some readers charge me with being the pot calling the kettle black, I co-wrote and produced the controversial Bubbles Galore, a feature length satire of pornography starring Nina Hartley, Annie Sprinkle, Penthouse Pet Shauny Sexton, a whole whack o' strippers as well as some of Canada's finest legit actors Daniel MacIvor, Tracy Wright, Thea Gill and many others.)

Natan's real achievements quickly eclipsed all the aforementioned pornography nonsense. Not only did Natan build a huge sound studio BEFORE sound, he pioneered several aspects of film technology, art and the business of making, distributing and exhibiting film. In 1929, his company Pathé-Natan was born when he purchased the reigning French studio and in spite of the Stock Market Crash and subsequent Great Depression, Natan took Pathé to unbelievable heights.

Profits were huge, Natan began to back several filmmakers to produce some of the greatest epics in French cinema's history (Joan of Arc, Les Miserables) and he invested huge amounts of capital into the research and development of such groundbreaking cinematic technical developments as anamorphic lenses and cinemascope. Natan was, without question a visionary who contributed to the explosion of French Cinema as a major artistic force that created indigenous product for a French-speaking market, thus putting a major damper on Hollywood's desire to dominate the world marketplace (to an extent that the studios predicted "English" would become the leading world language).

Astonishingly, when Natan heard that pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès had been reduced to bankruptcy, he sent regular cheques to the filmmaker at the little toyshop he worked in.

The film argues quite successfully that Natan's devotion to FRENCH cinema was unparalleled and that the true groundwork was laid by his vision and genius. Alas, vision and genius invite enemies and when several members of the Pathé board (one of whom was tied to the Nazis in Germany and others who become dirty Vichy pigs when the Nazis invaded), decided Natan had to be taken apart - piece by piece. Not only was Natan charged with fraud, but a disgraceful campaign attacking his Jewish roots and questioning his French citizenship was instituted without mercy. Natan was eventually imprisoned and it was during this time that the Nazis and Vichy took control. Natan was singled out in Nazi Documents as a Jew, a pornographer and directly responsible for sullying the French people and he was released, only to be sent to the concentration camp of Auschwitz.

We learn that after he'd been murdered by the Nazis, the French Government tried and convicted him even further and in absentia (death). We learn that in France, there are no monuments to Natan. Even more egregious is that the famed French film school La femis exists on the first sound studio built in France, Natan's studio, yet there is nothing to honour him and none of the students have any idea that their school is on sacred ground, nor do they even know who Bernard Natan was.

Natan is a deeply and profoundly moving film that expertly seeks to place the great man of French Cinema where he truly belongs. Cairns and Duane create a brilliant and downright imaginative artistic vessel to tell Natan's story. The film is narrated, NOT by Natan, but by the film itself. The documentary is personified as "a FILM about Bernard Natan" and we are led through his life story by a mysterious figure who appears first as Natan, but is transformed, through the magic of cinema into a figure wearing what appears to be a paper bag over his head, one which has been configured in an odd Papier Mâché mask resembling Natan. The "film" narrates and is skillfully interspersed with a series of superb interviews with a variety of cinema experts, Natan's surviving family, a wealth of archival footage, photos and clips as well as from Natan's output as a production chief.

Yes, we also see the offending pornographic material and though some of the shots bear a slight resemblance to Natan, it's also pointed out how the dates of production are incongruous with Natan's genuine rise to power. No studio head would need or want to be making hard-core pornography.

The footage detailing the anti-Semitic slags against Natan during his fall from grace are heartbreaking beyond belief - so much so, that one is not only shocked by what occurred in the past, but that there's been so little done until this film to restore Natan's place in cinema history.

Having a "film about Natan" telling the tale isn't the only interesting approach, but it's a stroke of mad genius that Natan's image be cloaked with a receptacle to hide his identity. It somehow parallels the idiotic assertions of the aforementioned academic Joseph Slade who appears on camera reading from his seemingly spurious paper which declares that Natan "unquestionably" generated hardcore pornography, appeared in it and "bled [Pathé] to ruin". The film presents this as the utter nonsense it is and Slade comes off like some stuffed shirt bonehead who defends his paper by declaring that the films that came in his possession once belonged to actor Michel (Boudu Saved From Drowning) Simon who not only owned the largest collection of pornography in France, but "said" the films were made by Natan. Someone "said" this. What a pathetic tidbit to base this academic assassination on.

"Scholarship" by the - ahem - esteemed
Professor Joseph Slade
Finally, Natan is an absolute must-see film for anyone who cares about French Cinema, but furthermore, anyone who cares about cinema period. Without him, this God-given art might not even exist as it does now. This is a film that changes all that. It is as important a work as it is a lovingly crafted little work of art unto itself.

My only quibble is that I'd have enjoyed seeing Professor Slade adorned with a huge dunce cap over his entire head - a huge white cone with eyeholes cut out and resembling a Ku Klux Klan hood.

Well, I can at least dream about it.

Natan makes its Canadian Premiere at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival 2014 (TJFF) For tickets and info, visit the festival's website HERE.