“Natan” elaborates on a footnote in French film history, offering a one-hour documentary portrait as a sort of substitute for a man completely forgotten — or worse, unflatteringly misremembered — to all but the most devoted cineastes. Ironically, what makes Jewish entrepreneur Bernard Natan most interesting is the very charge this quixotic docu seeks to challenge, questioning whether one of the key architects of France’s modern film industry could possibly have gotten his start peddling silent-era pornography. While scholars will appreciate the efforts to clear Natan’s name, the vintage stag-film footage greatly limits the pic’s prospects with polite audiences.
Surely an interesting study could be made of the first erotic films committed to celluloid, though “Natan” veers in the opposite direction as it tries to shake the potentially slanderous notion that its subject (born Natan Tanenzapf) distributed, directed and starred in a handful of saucy short subjects (including one, “Fuck a Duck,” that even the most sex-positive culture critics would find appalling).
In the eyes of directors David Cairns and Paul Duane, these claims heap further insult on an influential figure who encountered fierce anti-Semitism among his peers and was ultimately sent to Auschwitz during World War II. Meanwhile, Natan’s many contributions to the French industry have gone largely unsung: Talking heads attempt to rectify that balance here, describing how Natan took control of Pathe in 1929, produced such important films as “La merveilleuse vie de Jeanne d’Arc” and “Les Miserables,” and paved the way in France for such innovations as sound, color, home viewing and widescreen projection.
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In his papers, Natan describes “Les Miserables” as “the story of a man from lowly origins who amasses a fortune, but is destroyed by a petty crime from his past” — a summary that also fits his own experience, as a 1911 arrest related to trafficking in adult films seems to have colored the way historians have viewed him since. The directors wait until relatively late in the film to raise Ohio U. professor Joseph Slade’s assertion that Natan was a porn-monger whose past caught up with him.
This oblique approach allows Natan’s other achievements to stand on their own at first, before the docu attempts to debunk Slade’s claims via side-by-side comparisons of Natan’s reconstructed portrait and footage from the offending stag films. One of the most touching revelations about Natan’s true character comes at the very end, with the detail that he served as Georges Melies’ benefactor after the silent-film maestro was abandoned by the industry and reduced to selling toys in a train station.
Despite the fact that Natan worked in cinema, the film seems starved for footage to support its incomplete biographical portrait, relying on documents, photographs and interviews better suited to a film-journal essay. A fanciful narration, delivered as if the film had a voice of its own, complements staged footage in which an actor who resembles Natan moves about various sets while wearing a large papier mache mask — a motif designed to remind that no one quite knows the truth about the enigmatic figure.