by Paul Duane and David Cairns
Paul Duane: The first thing I heard of Bernard Natan was a bunch of lies and half-truths, innocently peddled by somebody who’d heard about him from another source, who was in turn dependent on internet rumor and falsehood. That’s the way history gets written & re-written.
Back in 2009, I had become an avid reader of David Cairns’ funny and erudite film blog Shadowplay , and we’d corresponded a bit, sharing interests in early cinema and the odder corners of film history as we do. I found one post particularly stimulating as it told a story that beggared belief. It described how Bernard Natan, a French film producer, had simultaneously managed to run Pathé Studios—then the largest and most successful studio in France—while also maintaining a secret career in porn, both behind and in front of the camera. This piqued my interest, while also arousing my suspicion. I tend to view about 70% of what I read online as being questionable, and the percentage in this story could well be higher.
A bit of Googling and I found myself on track towards a much bigger story. What I found—derived from the work of French scholar Gilles Willems—suggested that Natan’s reputation had been blackened and his career ended prematurely by interests associated with French right-wing politics, and that his position as an immigrant and a Jew was resented greatly by those who saw themselves as the natural custodians of French culture.
Contacting David, I suggested that this might be the starting point for a documentary of some sort.
David Cairns: How can somebody who ran the biggest film company in France, who developed Cinemascope and converted a national cinema to sound, discovered the country’s greatest film star (Jean Gabin) and produced sixty-five movies in five years, be so erased from history that not even experts in French cinema have heard of him? How can he be remembered mainly for having sex with a duck, something he demonstrably never did? Traduced, bankrupted, imprisoned and murdered, and successfully prosecuted for fraud even after he was dead—if it can happen to Bernard Natan, it can happen to anyone.
Uncovering what we could of the true story of this powerhouse producing talent, we were continually shocked afresh at the level of vitriol directed at him, and the long life the lies have enjoyed. Ultimately, this is a story of anti-Semitism and envy which incriminates not just Germany in the forties but France in the thirties. But in a sense it could happen anywhere, because lies go round the world.
Ultimately, I think people should see this film not purely because Natan is someone they should hear about, should have heard of—film history is cluttered with forgotten giants—but because it’s an incredibly dramatic story of injustice. In a golden age of movie-making, a terrible crime was committed, and its effects are still with us, the true story still largely unknown.
Natan will be screening as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on Tuesday, July 29 @ Noon and at the California Theatre in Berkeley on Friday, August 1 @ 1:30pm. For more details and ticketing info, click here.
Paul Duane has been making films, both drama and documentary, for 20 years. In January 2014 he was the only director with two films on Variety‘s annual 10 Directors to Watch list. His latest film, Natan, has screened at some of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. He lives in Dublin but spends a lot of his time thinking about Memphis, Tennessee.
David Cairns is a filmmaker, critic, blogger and teacher based in Scotland, which is the wrong place to be doing most of these things. He is responsible for the multi-award-winning short Cry for Bobo and has just completed a short documentary for the Blu-Ray release of A Hard Day’s Night. He is one of the writers of the new horror movie Let Us Prey.