#AceHistoryNews – Dec.15: La Fémis, the French national film school, occupies a space at number 6, rue Francoeur in Montmartre, Paris. The building is a former film studio, naturally enough. It was built in 1929 for a company called Rapid Film, owned by a man called Bernard Natan. When Natan bought a much more famous outfit, Pathé, he merged the two organisations, and Pathé-Natan, the country’s leading studio throughout the 1930s was born.
Today, there is a plaque at La Fémis commemorating Natan, the founder of the building, a man vitally important to French film history. The plaque, which was unveiled at the end of 2014, states that he died in 1942 at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Between the second world war and the establishment of this small memorial, few people talked about Natan, his sad death, or his contribution to cinema. Many people that did mention his name called him a criminal, or a deviant. With Natan’s legitimate achievements erased from the history of the business he devoted his life to, rumours swirled in to fill the void. Instead of being known as the saviour of the French film industry, Natan was called a pornographer and a crook.
Watch the trailer for Natan.
Not everyone fell for the gossip. A fascinating documentary film called Natan, directed by David Cairns and Paul Duane and newly available on DVD, attempts to separate the facts from the slander. It’s a grim, but enthralling watch – despite its sensational subject matter, it’s a cool-headed investigation into an unpalatable slice of film history. Unfortunately, despite his late recognition on the Rue Francoeur, Natan’s story remains a very sad one indeed.
Natan Tannenzaft was born in Romania in 1886. He first arrived in Paris in the early 1900s and, because he loved the cinema, he immediately began working in the moving picture business. He held various jobs, including working as a projectionist, and developing films in a lab. In 1909, he married a French woman and they went on to have two children, little girls. In the first world war, he volunteered to fight for France, and returned to Paris wounded, but decorated for bravery. In 1921 he successfully applied for French citizenship, changing his name to Bernard Natan. Twenty years later he would be imprisoned, stripped of that citizenship, labelled “the most dangerous Jew in France” and sent to certain death at Auschwitz.
Nicknamed ‘the Pathé swindler’ … Bernard Natan Photograph: Pathé-Natan
Natan’s crime appears to have been to be successful, and Jewish, in an era of antisemitism and fear. In the 1920s, Natan was the owner of Rapid, which had exclusive rights to film the 1924 Paris Olympics, and ran studios where silent-era luminaries such as Marcel l’Herbier made groundbreaking films. At the end of that decade, he took over the exhibition and production sectors of Pathé and turned that company around. Without him, the French cinema industry was at risk of foundering, having failed to recover from the dry period of the first world war, and unready to embrace the disruption of the 1930s. Without Natan, Pathé would most likely not have embraced sound film-making, revived its famous newsreels nor moved into diverse areas from radio and television to home projection and anamorphic photography.
In his time at Pathé, he also produced some of the masterpieces of French 1930s cinema, including Raymond Bernard’s Wooden Crosses (1932), a powerful war film made all the stronger by the fact that it was created by and starred so many veterans of the 1914-18 conflict, including Natan himself.
But this is where the story begins to get very murky – and veers in two different directions. According to contemporary rumours, which have been recently revived by people from American academic Joseph Slade to lead singer of the Pixies Black Francis (in his illustrated novel The Good Inn), all the time that Natan was the chief executive of the Pathé studio, he led a double-life as a pornographer. Natan is not suggested to have been a porn film producer, but actually an actor, in boundary-pushing silent stag movies involving practices previously, or indeed still, taboo – homosexual acts, sadomasochism, and bestiality. It’s a charge as ludicrous as it is lurid, and it boggles the mind to think that one of the country’s leading businessmen would take on such work. There is absolutely no evidence to confirm the story. For anyone who still harbours doubts, in Cairns and Duane’s documentary, headshots of Natan are shown next to discreet excerpts from the films.
The truth is somewhat less sensational, but outrageous in its own way. Pathé was hit by the financial crises of the 1930s, and Natan was struck by the surge of antisemitism in France. When the studio went bankrupt, Natan was accused of fraud and nicknamed “the Pathé swindler”; newspaper reports revealed his “hidden” Jewishness and his name was dragged through the mud. Filmed in the dock during his trial, Natan is shown hiding his face behind a newspaper and saying: “This is not a comedy, this a tragedy.” The recording was manipulated so that his words are spoken in a ridiculous, Mickey-Mouse squeak. This is when the stories about the stag films began to circulate, from industry rumours to a grim illustrated report in Paris-Match. Natan was convicted and sent to prison in 1939. In 1941, his portrait featured prominently in a racist Paris exhibition called Le Juif et la France, and Natan was stripped of his French nationality. He was released a year later, but as he was no longer a citizen, he was sent with a transport of Romanian Jews from the Drancy camp in Paris to Auschwitz (with a note to Adolf Eichmann, pointing out who he was). He never came home again.
Dead, and defamed, Natan’s name was consistently missed out of the standard histories of French cinema, but still the rumours persisted. When the pornography stories surfaced again in a journal article by Slade in 1993, Natan went from a forgotten man to a dirty joke – the saucy, crooked Jew who thought he could make a legitimate career in a booming business. For his family, these lies are upsetting, but the damage spreads further than that. We owe it to our understanding of the cinema, and of immigration, to remember the name Natan.
- Natan is now available on DVD from Lobster Films, with French and English subtitles. Wooden Crosses is available on DVD/Blu-ray from Masters of Cinema.