David Cairns, the blogger behind shadowplay, is also the co-director, with Paul Duane, behind Natan, a remarkable short feature documentary having its New York premiere at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, on Sunday January 19th at four in the afternoon. Duane will be present for a post-screening Q&A.
The movie opens with a series of sepia-toned images as the smooth but hefty tones of Scottish actor Gavin Mitchell address the audience: "Imagine a man has been murdered. The body has been burned. What's left..." Yes, what is left? The movie got its hook into me right away, and never let up.
Natan is, among other things, a remarkable piece of cinephile detective work. Its subject should be a celebrated legend of French cinema. As an overseer of the great French studio Pathe, which for a time also bore his own name, Bernard Natan produced and/or presented films by Rene Clair, Raymond Bernard, and Marcel L'Herbier. He was also, it seemed, a tireless innovator with respect to distribution and exhibition. He was also, according to some sources, an early producer of pornographic films and a some time actor in them. He was indisputably a Romanian-born Jew, finally, and that proved his undoing in Vichy France—thanks in part to anti-Semitism stoked in the country well before Hitler's troops ever set foot in it.
When David, who's a pal, gave me a heads-up on the movie, he said that he hoped that I would find it "packed with information, outrage, and emotion." Indeed. The movie does not attempt a "rehabilitation" of Natan so much as insist that such a state of affairs in which such a treatment were needed is, in itself, an awful injustice. It does this using methods that are risk-taking by conventiona documentary standards, with an actor silently standing in for Natan as narrator Mitchell assumes the man's voice. Scholars and writer such as Serge Bromberg and an especially impassioned Bart Bull, and Natan's own granddaughter, express indignation over Natan's fate even as Cairns and Duane carefully unpack all the available data concerning certain allegations against the man, and reach a tacit conclusion that there are some things about the man that we'll never be able to know. The tragic, convoluted story isn't just for cinephiles—it's for anyone consumed by the mysteries of mankind and the glories it aspires to, and alas, the atrocities it commits. See it.