Little is known beyond question, but in Paris around 1906, Natan was apparently fined and imprisoned for involvement with indecent movies. Soon after that he volunteered for the French army and served more than two years on the Western Front. As a reward, he was granted French citizenship and then made his way in the French picture business. He pioneered the making of newsreels and directed the filming the 1924 Paris Olympiad. He worked for Pathé, the famous French film company, to such an extent the firm was renamed Pathé-Natan. He was the supporter of directors like Raymond Bernard, Maurice Tourneur and Rene Clair, and he was heavily involved with films as important as L’argent (1928), The Marvelous Life of Joan of Arc (1928), Les croix du bois (1932), the 281-minute Les misérables (with Harry Baur and Charles Vanel) (1934) and Le dernier milliardaire (1934). Some said he had kept Pathé alive.
Then his fortunes wavered, Pathé-Natan fell into trouble, and Natan admitted to fraud. Old stories of Natan the pornographer were revived in the growing anti-Semitism of 1930s France. He was convicted of fraud (there is anguished footage of him in court) and put in prison in 1938. By the time he was released, France had fallen to the Germans. His citizenship was revoked and he was transported to Auschwitz where he died in 1943.
Cairns and Duane have done all they can to investigate this uncertain history. They provide clips from the classic films and from pieces of pornography in which Natan may be one of the actors. They talk to his grandchildren; they look at a letter sent from Auschwitz; scholars and historians argue the case. And all the while, the long, enigmatic and rather wolfish face of Natan stares out at us. It was that face as much as the story that gripped me. And so, prompted by this documentary, I started to write a novel about Bernard Natan or someone like him.
David Thomson is a film critic and author of books including The Biographical Dictionary of Film and Have You Seen?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. His latest is The Big Screen: The Story of Movies. He received Telluride’s Special Medallion in 2006.
Natan is about to produce Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent. He meets the actress they have cast in the female lead.
“You are so fair,” he told her. “Perfectly Aryan. I daresay you are difficult to photograph.”
“Why do you say ‘difficult’? Fritz Lang told people during Metropolis that I was the definition of cinema. Of course, he never told me.”
“Ah, Fritz Lang, what would you expect?”
“I expected nothing. It was my first film. I only did it because my mother said I should.”
“You were an obedient girl?”
“That was last year, Monsieur Natan. I learned a lot from Fritz Lang.”
He was eager to hear her gossip, and he enjoyed the juxtaposition of their faces, one leaning in, one more withdrawn but aware she was spilling secrets. She smiled pensively at Natan. He was as Jewish as she was Aryan, she thought. He adored her, she knew it.
“Herr Lang is terrible,” she began. It was as if she had barely survived.
The story she told was of a blonde Berliner chosen out of thousands to play the heroine in his immense futuristic film. Lang had asked her did she want to be an actress and Eva (that was her name then) was shocked. “Oh, no,” she had said. “That would be immoral.” Lang had nodded as if what she had said was so wise. Then he asked if any part appealed to her. “The good girl,” she decided.
There had been a screen test where Eva had to pretend to be caught stealing. Lang laughed “What a good girl!” he had said and Eva Schittenhelm had been hired to play Maria. She would be a sweet, saintly girl, in a plain dress with a white collar.
Then one day Lang approached her and said there was another female role, and he had the idea of Maria playing that part too. How could one person be two people in a film, she had asked. And Lang popped his monocle out as if he despaired of her.
The other part was a wicked woman, a robot at first and then a temptress who encouraged the workers into orgy. She wore just a cruel metal brassiere and a diaphanous skirt. She was sweating when she danced and Lang liked that. “How did you feel?” he asked her.
“That it is immoral to act,” she whispered.
“But,” said Natan, “you are here to play in L’Argent.”
“I suppose I don’t make sense.”
“That is what Lang taught you?” said Natan.
“I told you he was terrible.”
They changed her name to Brigitte Helm.
NATAN | Ireland/U.K., 2013, 66m | Directors: David Cairns, Paul Duane