The Chronicle Review

Nazis, French Porn, and Film Studies: Bernard Natan's Strange Saga


Bernard Natan, upper right, on trial
May 27, 2014

Mention Bernard Natan to even the most obsessive connoisseur of French cinema and you’re liable to get a blank stare. If recognized at all, the name might call up a vague association with sleaze and scandal. Natan, a new documentary from Ireland by the filmmakers David Cairns and Paul Duane, sketches in the full and fascinating picture—enumerating Natan’s achievements, debunking the allegations, and reconstructing a legacy lost to malign neglect.

Natan, né Natan Tannenzapf, was a Romanian Jew who immigrated to Paris in 1905 and went on to become a titan of French film, a man whose brand name, for a time, rivaled that of Gaumont and Pathé, founding fathers of le cinéma français. At once media visionary and rapacious entrepreneur, he burned bright over the City of Lights until an arrest for fraud sent him crashing to earth. Following a sensational trial laced with xenophobia and anti-Semitism, he was sentenced to four years in the Prison de la Santé, in Paris, which is where the Nazis found him. Shipped to Auschwitz, Natan perished in 1943 and promptly vanished—or was he erased?—from historical memory.

Media visionary and entrepreneur, Natan burned bright over the City of Lights until an arrest for fraud sent him crashing to earth.

Natan seeks to undo the second injustice. At a brisk 66 minutes, it unspools like a much shorter, cinema-centric version of Marcel Ophuls’s epic documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), the searing j’accuse that vaporized the glorious myth of consensual French resistance during the Nazi occupation. Francophilic cinephiles are sometimes afflicted with a similar case of selective amnesia, hailing the subversive frisson of Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise (1945) while forgetting the collaborationist filmmakers who adapted to the new regime without missing a beat. A different kind of film noir, Natan unravels the knots in three interlacing threads: the nature of history (whom do we remember and whom do we choose to forget?), the tenacity of French anti-Semitism (where the indigenous variant proves a congenial blend with the imported vintage from Germany), and (here’s where things get strange) the archival shadows of pornography flickering in film studies.

The outlines of Natan’s biography read like a Gallic version of an American rags-to-riches story featuring a colorful hustler who might have fit in well with the moguls who built an empire of their own in Hollywood. A self-made Frenchman, perhaps in nothing so much as his passion for the emerging art of the century, Natan arrived in Paris when the city was still reeling from the actualités of Auguste and Louis Lumière and the prestidigitation of Georges Méliès. Hitting the ground floor running, Natan took any gig available: lab worker and projectionist, tripod carrier and camera-cranker, and, in 1910, an outré credit—probably on a nudie film—that earned him a hefty fine and jail time for trafficking in obscene material. Still, he assimilated with a vengeance, marrying a French Catholic and enlisting in the French army during the Great War. His heroic service at the front was his passport to French citizenship; it also got the prewar bust for obscenity expunged from his record.

Mustered out, Natan assumed a prominent role in rebuilding an industry left prostrate by the Great War and plowed under by Hollywood imports. He acquired exclusive rights to film the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, built high-quality processing plants for developing and duping prints, and moved into the production of top-line features, most notably the patriotic blockbuster The Marvelous Life of Joan of Arc (1929), directed by Marco de Gastyne. Both a detail-oriented manager and a big-picture man, Natan kept a hand in all ends of the business, from the chemicals used in the labs to the interior design of the theaters.

Even before the onset of sound, in 1927, Charles Pathé had lamented that there was no more money to be made from motion pictures. Natan knew better. In 1929 he bought out Pathé—whose "crowing rooster" logo was as much an emblem of ur-Frenchness as the Eiffel Tower—and, under the name Pathé-Natan, set about consolidating his various holdings into a vertically integrated business, a streamlined system of production, distribution, and exhibition, just like the major Hollywood studios. To a remarkable extent, he succeeded—creating big-budget, must-see feature films, building a fleet of ornate theaters, and bringing technical innovations like sound and Technicolor to the French screen. Among the 70 or so feature attractions produced under his shingle are two enduring classics by the director Raymond Bernard: Wooden Crosses (1932), a grim, trench-level slog through the Great War, and Les Misérables (1934), a prestige literary adaptation that, as the documentarians Duane and Cairns cannily note, probably had a personal reverberation for Natan, with its theme of a powerful man haunted by a petty crime from his past.

So far, so business-as-usual, not unlike a TCM documentary on Jack Warner or Louis B. Mayer. But then the story detours into a distinctly French quarter. In December 1938, at the height of his power, Natan was hobbled by two indictments, that he was a swindler and a Jew. He could mount a defense against only one. More-scandalous allegations were whispered—actually, in the right-wing press, shouted: that Natan’s long-ago brush with the law was no youthful indiscretion but part of a pattern of perversity. Despite his high profile and respected position, the coverage suggested, the slick foreigner was still peddling pornographic films to an underground market of like-minded lechers. The charges were straight from the playbook of the Nazi propagandists, echoing the double-barreled libels of Julius Streicher’s anti-Semitic rag Der Stürmer, where the Jew was depicted as an invasive virus sucking the life out of the body politic while defiling the purity of the native bloodline.

Unfolding from January to June 1939, trumpeted in lurid press headlines, the criminal case against Natan involved cooked books, stock manipulation, and dummy holding companies. In brief, he was accused of robbing his own company blind and cheating the stockholders. He confessed to manipulating funds—but only, he insisted, to keep his company afloat, not to bilk the stockholders. Unmoved, the court sentenced him to four years in prison. In 1940, under the Third Republic and still before the Nazi invasion, the sentence was extended to five years. The next year, a Vichy court deprived him of the French citizenship he had won during the Great War. When the Nazis requested custody of Natan (according to the French Holocaust historian Serge Klarsfeld, Natan was one of only two French Jews targeted by name, the other being Léon Blum, the former prime minister), the Vichy authorities readily complied. As the French film historian Georges Sadoul remarked, Natan’s prison cell served as the "antechamber to the oven of the crematorium."

The obvious French back story to l’affaire Natan is the case of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army captain whom the French railroaded on a trumped-up charge of treason.

The obvious French back story to l’affaire Natan is the case of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army captain whom the French military railroaded into Devil’s Island on a trumped-up charge of treason in 1895. "You might call this the Dreyfus affair of cinema," says the director and actor Frédéric Tachou. But the criminal charges against Natan are a bit harder to disentangle. In 1940, the Hollywood trade paper Variety, which had no dog in the fight, reviewed what it called "the largest scandal ever recorded in the French cinema world" and came down hard on the man in the cross hairs of the French justice system: Natan "built up a monster organization without sound financial foundation and it collapsed of its own dead weight, although it required more than 10 years to bring him to justice."

Nonetheless, a cadre of French film historians has been adamant that Natan was set up; that, despite his confession, he was no less a victim of anti-Semitic hysteria than Dreyfus. André Rossel-Kirschen, Natan’s nephew and the author of Pathé-Natan: the True History, published in France in 2004, attacked the legend of the "swindler Natan" as a smear by greedy business interests seeking to gain control of a company that was not a hollowed-out shell but a solid moneymaker—that, in fact, was always in the black. The French historian Gilles Willems, another diligent researcher in the archives of Pathé, also scorns "the tenacious legend" regarding "the Jewish swindler of Romanian descent, Bernard Natan, who acquired the great Pathé firm the better to pillage it."

For film scholars lacking a CPA license, the labyrinthine bookkeeping trail is difficult to follow—a confirmation of the cynical Hollywood adage that the most creative people in the motion-picture business work in the studios' accounting departments. In a blog post on the making of the documentary, the filmmaker Cairns offers what seems a measured appraisal: that Natan "did more good than harm" in the annals of French cinema, and that whatever the nature of his financial malfeasance, he "was scapegoated and punished with a grotesque severity."

Ironically, after getting little more than a footnote in most chronicles of the French cinema, Franco or Anglophone, it would be the more scandalous charge that rescued Natan from his cruel fade to black. In 1993, Joseph W. Slade, a professor of media and culture at Ohio University, published an article in the Journal of Film and Video with the come-hither title "Bernard Natan: France’s Legendary Pornographer." The piece was both salacious and, as it turned out, propitious. Slade was a pioneer in what has since morphed into a full-blown subfield of cinema studies—porn studies. Jump-started by the University of California at Berkeley film professor Linda Williams’s Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the ‘Frenzy of the Visible,’ published in 1989, and lent momentum by her edited collection, Porn Studies, in 2004, the close textual examination of pornography has turned from what was, not so long ago, an indictable offense into an au courant career path in the academy. Feminist critics especially have cultivated a nonprurient interest in porn, seeing in the raw footage an unfiltered lens into the male—and female—psyche, not to say physique.

Despite smirking from the mainstream press, few media scholars today would argue that a multibillion-dollar industry that has thrived since the dawn of cinema is not worthy of serious scrutiny and archival excavation. That consensus is confirmed by the steady inroads of a series of exceptionally well-attended panels at annual meetings of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and, this spring, the debut of Porn Studies, an academic journal devoted to all things triple-X. If anything, the mainstreaming of porn in media studies has lagged behind its mainstreaming on the motion-picture screen, cable, and the web.

Slade’s article certainly resurrected Natan—not as a forgotten giant of the French film industry, but rather as a priapic smut merchant. Slade charged that even as Natan was consolidating his aboveboard cinematic empire, he "unquestionably turned out some of the most historically significant hard-core footage made during the silent era." More than that, Slade contended that Natan was a featured player in many of the films, exuberantly joining in with the sadomasochism, sodomy, and bestiality. "Natan’s dapper, slightly vulpine figure, capable of stalking or mincing as the role demanded, suited the storylines," he asserted. No prude himself, Slade frankly admired the sheer épater le bourgeois of Natan’s risky moonlighting, pointing out that "as a pornographer," Natan "parodied a bland, reactionary mainstream cinema."

The French, who love a good trans-Atlantic donnybrook over cinema more than a Gitane after dinner, took to the conference-journal-and-cyberspace barricades to defend Natan’s honor. None have been more tenacious than the archivist Brigitte Berg, director of Les Documents Cinématographiques in Paris, who on the website Les indépendants du premier siècle, blasted Slade’s "poor knowledge of both the man Bernard Natan and the French cinema in general" and accused him of "slander," "fantasies," and (the mildest cut) "a rich imagination." (Unfortunately, Berg played no role in Natan, because of creative/scholarly/economic differences with the filmmakers.)

Natan resolves the fracas with a montage worth a thousand monographs: the first extended unreeling of Natan’s alleged on-screen acrobatics. Inarguably, the glimpses of proto-porno from the prewar, silent era possess redeeming archival value, from the posed nudes in nickelodeon-era stag films (pretty much the kind of mild erotica you might see on a visit to the Louvre) to the hard-core coupling, and tripling, of the 1920s and 1930s. The most shocking snippet (I have never seen anything like it and, if I had, I wouldn’t admit it) features a randy swain engaging in sexual congress with a mallard. (The French title—Le Canard—sounds far more genteel than the rhyming imperative that is its English billing.) "The ugliest film I have ever seen in my life," says the archivist Serge Bromberg. "We didn’t want to restore it."

But, of course, the best argument for restoration is that without being able to eyeball the primary source, the canard against Natan would persist. Freeze-framing and telescoping in on close-ups of the actor, the filmmakers compare the visage of the energetic star in the French porn with contemporaneous pictures of Natan, plainly showing that the men are not one and the same. The accusation always sounded unlikely—sort of as if David O. Selznick used his off time during Gone With the Wind (1939) to cavort in blue movies shot in 16mm down in the Valley. On camera, Slade now concedes that there may be reasonable doubt as to the identity of the performer and to Natan’s filmography in pornography. "I do not now believe that Natan performed in the films," he wrote me in an email, "but I do think it is likely that he was involved in their making." Although he finds Natan "somewhat maudlin," he is "delighted that Natan is at last getting the attention he deserves, attention long denied him because of the anti-Semitism that has for so long erased him from French film history."

It is odd, though, that a story that hits so many of the buttons of film scholarship—and that is this juicy—has been for so long so forgotten. "I don’t think he has been airbrushed out" of history, says the writer Bart Bull in Natan. "I think he has been deliberately destroyed." Yet it’s hard to gauge how much of the history in any field just slips down the rabbit hole of memory—like say, the story of the unheralded pioneers of American film, Harry and Roy Aitken, who produced The Birth of a Nation (1915)—and how much results from willful acts of historical erasure. However, one can see why historians of French cinema would rather remember the glory that was the cinéma français than they would the political, cultural, and business sadism, the bigotry and hypocrisy, not to mention the seediness intertwined with the triumphs in the story of Bernard Natan.

Appropriately, the most inspired sequence in Natan is also a work of restoration, though not of a pornographic film, at least not as usually defined. A newsreel clip shows Natan in the dock in 1941, at the trial that stripped him of his citizenship, a sequence that Ophuls also unspooled in The Sorrow and the Pity. "This is not a comedy," sputters Natan, trying to hide from the cameras. "This is a tragedy." Produced by none other than Pathé Cinema, by then a tool of the Nazi occupation, the newsreel dubs in a panicky high-pitched voice for Natan, to make the outcast Jew sound like a squealing rat. Duane and Cairns correct the distortion, rewinding the clip with Natan’s real voice on the soundtrack. "You can hear his real voice in another clip used in the film where he’s telling architects what he wants in his cinemas," Duane told me in an email. "We pitch-shifted the sped-up voice in the trial newsreel until it was closer to the way he really sounded."

The gesture neatly demonstrates that if film can distort and delete history, it can also restore and repair it. "The man is dead," says the narrator at the beginning of Natan. "Even his memory has been destroyed."

No more.

Thomas Doherty is chair of the American-studies program at Brandeis University. His most recent book is Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press, 2013).