Part 2 of David Cairns’ recounting of the strange story of Bernard Natan. Part 1 was published yesterday.
While it’s been suggested that the Pathé-Natan affair was akin to the Dreyfuss affair, one important difference should be emphasized: Dreyfuss was completely innocent. Natan’s case is more complex, and it would be more accurate to call him a man who did more good than harm to the industry he chose to work in, a man who was scapegoated and punished with a grotesque severity.
In 1935, his bank, Bauer & Marchal, was teetering on the verge of collapse, and owed money to Pathé-Natan which it could not pay. This bad debt threatened Natan’s credibility and he needed to hide it from Dirler. To pay the debt off, he concocted a scheme (aided by several collaborators, with Emmanuel Cerf, who had brokered the Pathé purchase, as probable mastermind) to steal money from his own company.
The firm had a profitable sideline in home cinema. The 17.5mm system, Pathé Rural, needed to be converted to sound. Natan had an engineer make up plans, then copied them and patented them in the name of a fictitious company. When Pathé-Natan began using the design, the fictional company issued a threat of lawsuit. As chairman, Natan settled out of court, paying a large sum to his phantom company, which he could then use to pay off the Bauer et Marchal debt.
It’s important to note that the above is partly supposition: we have the testimonies of Natan and his co-accused, but they all tell different stories, none of which fully add up. Natan’s story seems most coherent, and certainly less shifty than Cerf’s, but without legal experts reopening the case a definitive solution is unlikely.
Natan went to trial in a climate of rabid hysteria, with the press openly calling him a pornographer (reproducing frames which claimed to show him performing in stag reels, but which clearly feature a quasi lookalike who is the wrong age and has a set of earlobes alien to Natan), a foreigner, a a Jew, a swindler. Friends apparently suggested that Natan flee the company, but he declined, saying that he had faith in French justice.
Natan, having been the right man in the right place for movies and talkies, now became the pawn of history. His story slotted into an ongoing narrative about Jewish swindlers and the press ran stories about a vampiric Romanian siphoning off billions of francs from one of France’s most iconic companies. Natan was jailed, but things were about to get worse.
“My darling Little Bird, the sweet letter you wrote me last week was a real pleasure for me, since due to the present circumstances I cannot see you and kiss you with all my heart, as I long to. […] I am happy to know that you girls are having fun and that you have learned to swim, and I hope you both will do your best in school, for the sake of your little mother who loves you, and mine as well. For my little darling, you must be educated if you want to get where you want in later life and not be laughed at by other people, who can often be cruel.”
France fell to the invading German army. Marshal Philippe Petain was placed in charge of a puppet government, and a new storyline was sold to the French public. In order to receive his countrymen’s support, Petain, an octogenarian military hero, had to deplore the German conquest, but he could not denounce the Germans. France’s defeat was blamed on a corrupting influence from within: communists, freemasons and Jews. The Natan story could easily be retrofitted into this plot.
In 1941, the “Institute for the Study of Jews” launched a large-scale exhibition in Paris, purporting to chart the influence of Jews in public life. Natan’s portrait was the centrepiece of the cinema section, surrounded by smaller pictures of his competitors, who were portrayed as his allies. Natan is seen with two giant hands held out, one cupping a pair of dancing movie stars, the other supporting a camera and operator. A colossus holding the film business in his hands: a kind of compliment, I suppose.
The exhibition was just the beginning, a kind of psychological preparation for what was to come: yellow stars and deportation. It’s important to note that Petain’s collaboration with the Holocaust was enthusiastic and self-motivated, rather than any result of direct pressure. And there is no record of any German insistence that Natan, already imprisoned, should be further punished.
But it was decided to remove his French citizenship. Since there was no legal means to denaturalize those war heroes who had won their place in France, a special act had to be passed. Natan wrote to protest this, very eloquently, but was ignored. He appears in a 1941 newsreel, in the dock, trying to hide his face from the cameras. His voice, when he says “This is not a comedy, this is a tragedy,” has been sped up to sound like Mickey Mouse. The newsreel was co-produced by Pathé Cinema.
Robbed of his citizenship, Natan was now a stateless man. He was technically “released” from prison, but in reality he was handed over to the French police, who were running a detainment camp at Drancy.
Drancy: the suburb where Paul and I got off the train by mistake, and wondered that such a depressing place could be so close to Paris. In Drancy there is a housing estate which looks like a typical brutalist construction of the sixties, but was actually built in the thirties. Unoccupied for several years, it was then used as a prison for British POWs. Then it became the holding camp for Jewish internees awaiting deportation to an unknown destination.
The inmates spoke of a mythical place called Pichipoi, a work camp where life was terribly hard. This may have been a way to reassure themselves: as awful as Pichipoi was going to be, at least it had a name and a set of characteristics. The secret destination of the trains rolling out from Le Bourget was more frightening for being unknown.
Natan was only in Drancy for a couple of days, before being shipped out, not to Pichipoi, but to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“Dear wife and children,
I am very happy I can write to you. I work at [REDACTED] and I am in good health. Send me some money and some wool clothes, and wooden clogs for winter. I send you my greetings and lots of kisses from daddy.”
This extraordinary letter was sent early in 1943. It is the last thing anyone heard from Bernard Natan. But his story does not end here.
Since Auschwitz did not provide death certificates, Pathé Cinema could sue him again in 1944 and 1948. Since Natan’s conviction predated the Occuption, his reputation was not revised to remove the slurs of the right-wing press. If Natan was mentioned at all in film histories, it was invariably as the philistine producer who bankrupted Pathé, a vulgarian swindler and former pornographer.
And in 1996, Professor Joseph Slade of the University of Ohio published an essay linking Natan to specific porn films which had been preserved in the Kinsey Institute and elsewhere. Published in the Journal of Film and Video, it has a scholarly imprimateur and opens with the confident statement “Although he was notorious for other reasons as well, an important French producer unquestionably turned out some of the most historically significant hard-core footage made during the silent era.”
Slade’s article has been widely quoted from and has inflected the whole discourse on Natan. Attributing a whole filmography (consisting of nearly every well-known pre-war French stag film) to its subject, the article was also unfortunately influenced by its research materials: the French press of the thirties. So we have a piece which downgrades Natan’s achievements as legitimate producer, and seeks to establish his true status as an unsung auteur of the stag film.
Professor Slade was kind enough to give us an interview, where he explained the sources of his information, which are not given in the article. Due to the lack of documentation surrounding the illegal industry of early twentieth century porn cinema, he was forced to rely on rumour and gossip: what made him assert that Natan was “unquestionably” a major pornographer was a confluence of stories told to him by various sources:
1) An unnamed American collector of stag films told Slade that the actor Michel Simon (who had appeared in one Pathé-Natan production) had made numerous pornos and starred in all of them.
2) Silent star Louise Brooks told Slade that German director G.W. Pabst told her in 1930 that the director of a porno parody of Madame Butterfly was the same man who had just bought Pathé.
3) Slade found the collection of porn films filed under “Natan” in the Kinsey Institute, labelled by some anonymous archivist.
4) An article on stag films by Adou Kyrou contained an anonymous appendix attributing certain stag films to Natan, some of the titles overlapping with those in the Kinsey Institute.
5) Film historian William K. Everson casually remarked to Slade that the best silent porn films were made by Natan.
That’s quite a few sources, or “sources,” and one can see why a specialist in a field singularly lacking in recorded history might be excited: he could attach a list of movies without credited authors to a man rumored to be a pornographer but without a pornofilmography.
It has probably occurred to you that, since Natan was the subject of gossip all his career, it is not so surprising that Slade could find multiple stories told about him, and that some of the stories agreed. Unfortunately for Slade’s hypothesis, the various men he identifies as being Natan in the stag films are… various men. Only one of them looks anything like photos of Natan, but his prominent earlobes clearly give him away. Furthermore, he appears in so many porn films that one can watch him growing older and plumper, still shagging away like a Gallic Ron Jeremy, until all resemblance to his famous lookalike is obliterated.
Contra Slade, we can also say conclusively that Natan is not the husky individual penetrating an unhappy duck in Fuck a Duck, a film made in the sound era (you can tell by the shape of the film itself) when Natan was already a millionaire celebrity entrepreneur; not the small man with the bulbous nose and fake beard enjoying movie incest in Lot and His Daughters; not the Eurasian gentleman engaged in a bisexual threesome in The Modern Menage of Madame Butterfly. The claims of Michel Simon (a great actor; heroic Frenchman; assiduous porn collector; but mild anti-semite) for Natan’s career as porn star are demonstrably false, which means the fact that other accounts agree with him does not matter.
Natan undoubtedly was convicted of some involvement in films declared to be pornographic in 1911. Beyond that, anything stated about his participation in this field is conjecture. What is known is that he played a dynamic, decisive and positive role in the legitimate film industry, and that he came to a terrible end.
Why does any of this matter? As Paul and I try to argue in our film, Natan’s family have a right to be proud of this man, film history should celebrate his achievements, and the historical record should strive to eliminate the lies told during the Nazi era.
Natan’s only memorial in Paris is his birth name, Tanenzaph, engraved on the holocaust memorial along with tens of thousands of other names. But maybe soon La Femis, the French national film school, which is based in the Rue Francoeur studio he built, will see fit to put up a plaque. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
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.
David has written extensively about Bernard Natan at his own blog, Shadowplay.