Stan Kreis reviews the documentary "Natan" about French film industry pioneer Bernard Natan.

“Natan” at the Telluride Film Festival

In the 1930s, it is charged, Jewishly owned and operated movie studios played down the Nazi attacks on Jews. That story is recounted in a recent David Denby article, “Hitler In Hollywood,” in The New Yorker magazine.

Small wonder. They were afraid, as was the NY Times, also owned and operated by Jews, to rock the Gentile boat. The idea of an American philo-Semitism is a relatively recent phenomenon to the degree it exists today.

I saw a documentary at the recently run 2013 Telluride Film Festival that may bear on this question. It was titled “Natan” and was about a Romanian Jew , born Natan Tannenzaft, who immigrated to France, changed his name to Bernard Natan, and worked his way up from poverty to own and operate the prestigious French studio “Pathe.” But unlike America, where Jewish immigrants rose to the top of the studio system and survived there in a democracy, Natan had to deal head-on with the rise of European fascism in general and French fascism in particular. Think of Vichy France and their role in the subjugation of French Jewry.

The story of his rise and fall is similar to the Dreyfus affair and reflects the dirty little secret that French society was very anti-Semitic and, as I already pointed out, cooperated with the Nazis. Natan was no ogre, but he was hounded and made destitute by French society, especially its media, suffering because he was vulnerable to attack, first, because of his wealth and second because he was a Jew. Eventually, he was deported to the Auschwitz death camp where he died.

My inclination is to see in this story a prescient warning tale to the American Jewish immigrants who operated studios in the United States. Wouldn’t they have known this story, a Hungarian immigrant to France, hounded out of business and into destitution with political and social problems as well? Watching the arc of Natan’s life plummet like a falling star would make them worry about the stability of their own situations, so they would want to avoid any identification with Judaism and Jews. At least they would want to be cautious.

The prestigious Director Martin Scorsese filmed the critically acclaimed movie, “Hugo“, a story about the end of the life of French director and cinema innovator, Georges Melies The famous director wound up the last of his years operating a toy store in one of the Paris train depots. It turns out Melies once sent a letter to Natan, thanking him for continuously sending him checks so he could end his life in comfort. Natan, apparently, thought it was a cruel fate to assign a famous director such as Melies, who had given so much to the art of film, to a scrap-heap.

Such was the life of Bernard Natan, who had himself given so much to French (and therefore European cinema), but suffered the fate of a European Jew…destitution and then Auschwitz.

About Stan Kreis

Stan Kreis has degrees in sociology, economics and accounting. Therefore he is wise, literate, financially sound and married to Kathryn Bernheimer (she would never marry anyone without such credentials). Grave marker: "the world was his oyster, unfortunately, he ate it and got stomach cramps."

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