Natan – Part 1

MostlyFilm regular Paul Duane, who has written about his films Barbaric Genius and Very Extremely Dangerous in these pages, has teamed up with the most excellent David Cairns to make an acclaimed documentary about the once-notorious, now obscure, Bernard Natan, which will receive its English premiere this weekend. In this 2-part essay (the 2nd part will be published tomorrow), David recounts the whole strange story.

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 2012. Documentarist Paul Duane and I get the train from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris, to make a film about a forgotten filmmaker named Bernard Natan. He was a Romanian who became a French citizen. Paul is Irish, I am Scottish. Naturally, we get lost on the way to Paris.

None of the stations we’re passing seem to be on Paul’s map. We get off the train at a drizzling suburb called Drancy and ascertain that Paul’s map is crap. Then we have to wait ten minutes in this curiously damp, dark little town, until another train comes to take us to the City of Light. Later, we will realize something about Drancy that makes our blood run cold.

Paul makes documentaries, but I have never done so. My so-called career is spent bouncing between fiction films and film criticism. A documentary about a fiction filmmaker seems a good way to bridge the gap. We’ve kind of conned each other into making this film: Paul asked, “What’s your French like?” and I said “Not very good,” and he said his wasn’t very good either. When he tries to buy our train tickets in Spanish I realize we could be out of our depth here.

This whole adventure began when a former student of mine, Neil O’Driscoll, told me about a celebrated French film producer of the early thirties who combined running Pathé, then as now one of the biggest film companies in France, with churning out hardcore bisexual pornography. I wrote a blog post about this, based on what I could glean from Wikipedia, and Paul read it. He immediately felt something was fishy. As a producer himself, he couldn’t believe anyone could have the energy to run a major movie company and make porn on the side.

Preliminary research suggested that maybe there were two Bernard Natans. The mogul and the smut-hound. The French right-wing press had it in for the bigshot, who was foreign and Jewish, so they deliberately confused him with his infamous namesake. With that slender (and erroneous) story idea, we pitch the film to Reel Art, an Irish production scheme tailored to projects that couldn’t be made any other way. Since this is a film about a Frenchman which nobody in France has made in the seventy years since he died, we think it qualifies: the panel agree, and practically pitch the movie to us.

Eventually locating Paris, we meet Brigitte Berg, author of an excellent article which attemptied to clear Natan’s name of the pornography charges which have bedevilled him since the 1930s. We feel she’s a natural ally. She offers to become co-producer. But the terms of our Reel Art contract prevent us bringing in production partners, so we have to decline. From then on, Mme Berg eyes us rather like we’re something she’s just fished out of the plughole after washing the dog. It turns out she has several bulging boxes of research on Natan, assembled for a book and left in her keeping when the author died. We never get to look in those boxes, despite entreaties from Natan’s heirs.

However, we’re beginning to learn more about our subject. Subject, singular, There couldn’t be two Bernard Natans, a producer and a famous pornographer, because porn was illegal. Even in France. No porn film had credits, or at least not real ones. They were all made anonymously.

Our next contact, translator, historian and film detective Lenny Borger, an American in Paris, is much more helpful. Through him, we get a translator/researcher, the tenacious Christine Leteux, and we meet Natan’s graddaughters.

Natan Tanenzapf was born in Romania around 1886. His family ran a glass shop. In 1905, he emigrated to Paris, perhaps to escape the threat of pogroms in his native land. As soon as he arrived, he began to work in the movie business, pursuing a lifelong passion. His earliest jobs were humble: cinema projectionist, lab technician. He worked briefly in the labs of Pathé (his signature can be seen in a 1906 register of employees), which gives rise to the first of countless myths about Natan: fired for a mistake, the young man pauses at the exit and swears he’ll be back. We can be confident it didn’t happen that way, but Natan would return.

Natan married a Frenchwoman who was working as a cinema pianist when he was a projectionist. He got into production: newsreels and short features. And, late in 1910, police came to his house, searched it, and arrested him.

This is one of the two most mysterious incidents in Natan’s life, and research could only get us so far. Natan and his colleagues in the newsreel company were charged with making and distributing obscene films. Later, Natan was apparently also charged with appearing in them. He was threatened with deportation, but his wife petitioned on his behalf and the courts settled for a substantial fine and a four month prison sentence.

What did French courts consider obscene in the 1910s? We might guess that any nudity or sexual suggestion would be frowned upon, but while this was true in some countries, a certain amount of sauciness had been permissible in France. When we spoke to Natan expert Gilles Willem, he pointed out that harsher sentences were handed out for the selling of contraceptives. But Frederic Tachou, a scholar of pornography (yes, there are such scholars, serious-minded folks who doggedly explore the world of smut) told us that obscene films were subdivided into three categories and the court records viewed his films as being in the most severe category.

But we can’t know: virtually no porn films survive from this period. Rather than being preserved for posterity, stage reels were actively destroyed by the authorities. Indeed, not long after Natan’s arrest, the French police dumped a bunch of film cans in the Seine — and were arrested for polluting the river. It is quite likely that Natan’s entire erotic oeuvre was destroyed on that occasion.

Freed from prison, Natan resumed his energetic engagement with the cinema, designing titles, photographing La Commune (1914) for a society of anarchists (who, it’s said, were tardy paying him) and rebuilding his reputation. Then war broke out. For a dynamic optimist like Natan, perhaps this seemed an opportunity rather than a disaster. At any rate, with his wife running the company in his absence, he enlisted, even though as a Romanian citizen he was under no obligation to fight. Believing himself to be French, he acted French.

Natan came out of the conflict alive, wounded and decorated for bravery. And when he applied for French citizenship, he got it, with the added benefit that his criminal record was wiped clean. He would have been justified in thinking that his shameful secret was dead, never to be raised again.

And now Natan really began empire-building. He formed the first French company specialising in cinema advertising: under a different name, it still exists today. Newsreels and short subjects were no longer enough: he covered major sporting events like the Gerorges Carpentier / Battling Siki boxing match, and Suzanne Lenglen’s tennis triumphs. In 1924, he won the contract to film the Olympic Games: his coverage was later edited into a colossal two-part feature film, the first of its kind.

Natan now wanted to make “real movies,” and with the celebrated artist Marco de Gastyne, that’s what he did, culminating in The Marvellous Life of Joan of Arc, in 1929. Coming out just after Carl Dreyer’s classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, the Natan production was a smash hit. Unlike the austerely beautiful Dreyer movie, it staged all the battles and divine visions, providing an epic adventure story with uplifting patriotic spirit. Unlike the suffering saint played by Dreyer’s 36-year-old star Maria Falconetti, Natan’s Joan was played by a real teenager, a real tomboy, and a real Frenchwoman, Simone Genevois. She doesn’t attain the greatness of Falconetti, but she benefits from really being what she plays, and while the Gastyne film isn’t a  masterpiece like the Dreyer, it’s undeniably spectacular. Audiences flocked to it, and newspapers praised it as a truly French version of the story, apparently accepting Natan as their countryman.

Now Natan made his boldest move, and perhaps his gravest error. French cinema had been dominated by two major companies since the beginning of the medium, Gaumont and Pathé. But since the war, both giants had struggled. Charles Pathé had sold off the American wing of his company, dismantled the vertical integration that enabled him to produce, distribute and exhibit his films, and had ceased production. He wanted to retire.

Pathé’s own account of what followed is suspect: his autobiography was based around chapters which originally formed a deposition written when Natan was facing criminal charges, and so he is at pains to disassociate himself from the man to whom he entrusted the company he’d built up over thirty years. He claims that he demanded an absurdly high fee, to get rid of the untrustworthy interloper, and was astounded when Natan accepted.

Certainly the impression given is that Pathé wasn’t looking to find a safe pair of hands to steer his beloved company, so much as he was looking to offload a white elephant onto a gullible foreigner. What must he have thought when Natan proceeded to turn the company around and make a huge success of it over the next few years?

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But first, Natan had to modernize. The talkies had just taken Hollywood by storm, but France had been slow to respond. While silent movies had been able to traverse the globe with a simple substitution of title cards, sound cinema would require dubbing if movies were to travel. Paramount had already begun the wholesale dubbing of their movies into other languages, while other studios shot alternative versions in French and Spanish. MGM’s vice-president proclaimed that in ten years, thanks to talkies, English would be the only language spoken anywhere in the world.

But Natan embraced the possibilities of sound: he felt that French-made films would enjoy an advantage on their home turf over dubbed imports. This was a chance to build a distinctive national cinema, capable of being exported, but more importantly, capable of dominating French screens.

Since nobody had been in a hurry to respond to the talking picture in France, no sound stages were ready, so Natan shipped a cast and crew to England where producer John Maxwell had already been making talkies such as Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929). So the first French talkie, Les Trois Masques (1930), was shot on British soil. It’s pretty bad: stilted and stiff like the standard idea of early sound cinema, with static shots going on forever, and the camera never seeming to be quite in the right place (several cameras, trapped in soundproof booths, filmed at once, jostling for space with the all-powerful microphone).

But by the time of Chique, later that year, great strides had been made. Directed by Pathé-Natan regular Pierre Colombier, this short comedy based on the hoary conceit of ignorant Americans mistaking a Parisian Apache dance for a bout of domestic violence, has a lightness and flow belying its age. Music, sound effects and voices seem composed together, and the gliding camera and rhythmic cuts compliment this. French cinema seems to have learned the lessons of Hollywood in a third of the time.

None of this was cheap: Natan had to invest in sound systems, refit his vast studios at Joinville and Rue Francoeur, and restart production. Determined to recreate what Pathé had in its heyday, he bought the production company Cineromans and strings of cinemas around the country. He built up a roster of directors and put stars under long-term contracts in the Hollywood manner.

Many of these actors were new to the screen, including a young song-and-dance man called Jean Gabin, who made his debut for Natan and would become the country’s most iconic star. Working regularly with veteran director Maurice Tourneur, Natan also gave directing gigs to his son, Jacques, later the director of Hollywood classics like Cat People and Out of the Past.

Most of the studio’s films were middlebrow comedies or melodramas, with a few sillier films for the working class crowd: ethnic comedies like Les Galeries Levy & Cie (1930) poked fun at Jewish shopkeepers in a manner unthinkable today, but it was all meant in a good-natured way. As an émigré naturalized after the war, with a Catholic wife, Natan probably didn’t think of himself as anything other than French. Despite jokes about ignorant producers, he seems to have spoken the language with scarcely a trace of accent, along with English and German.

In association with German companies, Natan expanded his scope: a Russian director in Berlin filmed The Brothers Karamazov with Fritz Kortner and Anna Sten, so Natan paid to reshoot the close-ups in French and dub the wide shots. Other movies were filmed entirely in French, German and English.

On top of this, Natan bought the license to Technicolor, but it lapsed before he could build a lab, and British cinema took advantage of that opportunity. Natan tried to compete with hand-stencilled color on one film, Gaities de L’Escadron, and hired an inventor, Henri Chretien, to devise a simpler color susterm. Chretien failed, but did design what he called Hypergonar, an anamorphic lens which could compress a widescreen image onto a normal strip of 35mm film (the squeezed picture could be re-expanded by a suitably-equipped projector). Cinema proprietors, still reeling from the changeover to sound, declined to invest in this new gimmick, and it was left to Darryl Zanuck to exploit it, decades later. He called it CinemaScope.

To give the company the credibility he wanted, Natan also produced two expensive super-epics. Les Croix de Bois (Wooden Crosses, 1932) resembles other WWI pictures of the period, such as All Quiet on the Western Front, but is even darker. The major cast and crew members were all veterans. The plot is non-existent, as the heroes are merely shunted from battle to battle with no will of their own. The battle scenes are stupendous in scale and traumatic in intensity: when special screenings for veterans were arranged, there was at least one suicide. And rather than the abrupt, poetic ending of Hollywood’s All Quiet (the hero reaches for a butterfly and is shot by a sniper), France’s more brutal version lets its hero spend a whole night fatally wounded on the battlefield, in agony, waiting for death.

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Natan’s version of Les Miserables (1934), like Wooden Crosses directed by Raymond Bernard, is a 247 minute saga that comes closer to doing justice to Victor Hugo’s sprawling tale than any other talking picture version. The hulking Harry Baur plays Jean Valjean with convincing strength and rage, and Pathé-Natan regular Charles Vanel stalks him through the picture like an avenging angel housed temporarily in the body of a petty-minded state official. There’s a weird allegory here of Natan’s own life: the powerful industrialist haunted by a trivial crime from his past.

As the film opened to great acclaim, riots broke out in Paris that seemed to mirror the revolutionary fervor of the film. Right and left were sharply polarized, and the political turmoil in Europe influenced the film business. As Hitler came to power, Natan’s German co-productions ceased, and an influx of refugee actors, directors and cinematographers found work at his studio. Some welcomed the new talent, other were suspicious or hostile, since French technicians’ jobs would surely be taken by these émigrés.

The company was also belatedly feeling the effects of the stock market crash. Cinema attendances had proven steady, but Natan’s expansionist mission stretched his resources. He had acquired a company with full coffers, paying generous dividends to shareholders, but building up the company had drained the accounts, and when his bank almost failed, leaving a bad debt on the books, Natan came under pressure from shareholder organized by a man named Dirler.

Robert Dirler, sometimes known as Marc Dirler, was a rising businessman with a dubious background. When he tried to win army contracts he was investigated, and the military came to the conclusion that he was blackmailing Natan. At any rate, he was able to exert sufficient pressure to win a seat on the board of Pathé-Natan, where he seems to have worked to destabilize the CEO.

In 1935, having produced 65 films, most of them successful, and expanded the business in countless ways, Natan was ousted from his own company. The very same day, Pathé declared itself bankrupt. And yet in just a year’s time, all the supposed debts had been cleared.

Natan had lost the company he’d nurtured for five years, and all the other companies he’d built up over the preceding decades. But worse, far worse, was coming.

To be concluded tomorrow. Natan plays at the Curzon Soho this Saturday afternoon, in a Reel Art programme along with Broken Song, a documentary about street poets, hip-hop artists and songwriters from North Dublin. David will be in attendance along with Bernard Natan’s granddaughter Lenick Philipott.

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