Thursday, May 13, 2010

Fuck A Duck; A Flocking of Canards

The way the story gets told, he was, at bare minimum, bisexual. And that's to be gracious about the waterfowl. His most notorious film, 1926's Le Canard, was titled, allegedly, supposedly, in English, Fuck A Duck. Although that may itself be yet another canard. This is the kind of story where we'd better question everything, each and every quacking duck we stumble across.

Bernard Natan wasn't his real name. He was a Romanian Jew, so it's likely that Natan Tannenzaft, or Tannanzapf, probably wasn't really his real name either, though it does suggest he made his way across Germany at some point. And before he was shuttled back across Germany, he ended up owning Pathé, France's biggest film company. The one whose proud symbol is a rooster. Le Coq.

That's an actual fact — though declaring facts in the life of Bernard Natan is to take a swan-dive into the murkiest of French duckponds, into the cluckingest of coops poulet, into the near- impenetrable bird-poop of the closed-shutter French business-banking-judicial-governmental hierarchy of the 1930s. And then, even worse, to paddle into the time of the Vichy government, when the Nazi occupiers were pleased and bemused to discover that they'd at last invaded a country whose citizens were not only willing to rat out the Jews but to help provide the proper enforcement mechanism too. Worse yet, when you come up for air, all you can do is breathe in the successful silence that followed the grand national collaboration. Which became known, in the ex post facto aftermath myth, as le Resistance. Vive le Resistance!

Bernard Natan, Jew, foreigner, financial wizard, technological visionary, marketing seer and distribution innovator, studio chief and new owner of that ultra-modern French institution, Pathé, had appeared, the French courts were told, in scandalous stag films, lewd movies with elaborate sets and scenarios, films he wrote and directed and produced and then performed in as well. (As it was still The Silent Era, translation was a simple matter of, shall we say, inserts.) He was, they let it be known, a sodomite, a foreigner, a pornographer, a Jew, and, of course, surely, a swindler. En plus, he had purportedly fucked a duck. It was enough to make a judge's knife hesitate above his medaillions de maigret.

He was accused of fraud, of financial mismanagement, and he was, let it be said over and over again, a foreign Jew who fucked ducks on film — native ducks, noble French ducks. (Natan had, as well, been the first presenter of the much-beloved Mickey Mouse in France, though under the circumstances this probably didn't much help his case. Donald, uncharacteristically, retained his spluttering silence, as did les jeunes Huey, Dewey et Louis.) Early in his career, an emigrant, he had established a film company that produced nearly three dozen movies, and then he created his own production lab, Rapid Films, on rue Francouer, with labs and studios, workshops and soundstages that have since been transformed into le Femis, the French national film school. He created a advertising/publicity firm that still exists (under a less-troubling name, of course); he created the first footage of the 1924 Olympics; he built studios and stages and distributors and labs and projectors, and he produced major commercial movies.

In 1928, Charles Pathé, announcing that film was no longer profitable, stripped Pathé Cinema down to a shell company and sold off its assets. Bernard Natan risked acquiring it, transforming it into the extremely dynamic Pathé-Natan. He began purchasing theaters, sixty-two of them across France; in September of 1929, he produced France's first talkies, licensing RCA-Victor's sound system for his new theaters; he re-launched Pathé's newsreels and added sound to the pioneering international news source that would be be both distributed and widely imitated worldwide and which would lead to television news; by November of 1929, he had created France's first television company; it developed a transmission of television using telephone lines. He funded the research that led to the anamorphic lens, which led to Cinemascope and the contemporary wide-screen film. He innovated what we would now call vertical integration, controlling not only the means of production but the production labs as well, and the distribution and the theaters themselves. By 1930, no longer so convinced it was impossible to make money with movies, Charles Pathé wanted his company back.

Articles began to appear, to occur in the press, so many that they could surely be considered a well-organized campaign. Despite the fact that he'd been married to the same woman since 1909, despite the fact that he had two children, despite the fact that he made at least 60 major movies during the first half of the 1930s, Natan was now under steady attack: a Jew, an etranger, a pornographer, a pederast, perhaps even a foul violator of feathered French fowl, and yet with his grasping grip clutching such an important economic institution of la France. A swindler, an embezzler? Surely. How could he not be?

The anti-Semitism of France in the 1930s is only so little remembered because France's next-door-neighbor was so successfully raising the standard, and because . . . well, there are other reasons. After years of steady slander and innuendo, of gossip, and rumors in the press, all meant to destroy Natan's unpatriotic grasp on the proud nation's most famous film company, in 1936, at the height of the Depression, the Tribunal de Commerce succeeded in appointing a receiver who proceeded to declare Pathé-Natan bankrupt. Bernard Natan continued to produce films; his firm continued to operate at a profit. But by 1938, just after the Kristallnacht in Germany, Natan was arrested, and indicted, accused of fraud, of bilking investors, of negligent management and of hiding his heritage by changing his name.

Natan was imprisoned in 1939, and indicted yet again in 1941. This time he got convicted. Released in September, 1941, the Vichy Government efficiently arranged to have him placed on what is said to have been the very first train from France to Auschwitz. He was not seen again. Pathé (sans Natan) carried on with proper French management into the 1980s, based on the armatures Natan had created; the theater chain he established lives on today.

If you should visit France's national film school, le Femis on rue Francouer, in the 18th, occupying the buildings where once Bernard Natan first established his film lab, you will enter the gates under a striking antique arch that still says, so quaintly, "Pathé Cinema" with the fabled rooster emblazoned. On a sunny day, you will see France's elite young film students smoking underneath solemn marble plaques with the names of those who died defending La Belle France against the Nazis. They are the cream of their generation, these film students. As ever in France, to succeed, to advance, to prevail, you must absolutely attend the proper school; all politicians, left, right and center, attend the same school, and all up-ranking military officers uniformly attend another. And le Femis is where the future of film in France is being instructed. There is, of course, no mention of Bernard Natan on those memorial plaques. In fact, to the degree that he is remembered at all — and he isn't, not much — he is noted in French film history as a swindler, an embezzler, and as a dirty duck-fucking pornographer. There is reason to believe he never did any such things, and much proof that he didn't, but he never got a chance to tell his tale. Putain. Fuck. Fuck a duck.

(Note: In 1999, Gilles Willem published an article, "The Origins of Pathé-Natan" in Screening The Past, Issue 8, and it was translated by Annabelle de Croÿ. I'm indebted to this remarkable effort at re-examining the restructuring of Pathé, Natan's innovations, and the financial and judicial machinations of that time. Without it, I would have joined in understanding Bernard Natan — his name; the name he chose for himself — as he has been understood in all the years since he was escorted out of France.)


Simon Warner said...

Neat piece, Bart - some fascinating details. I visited Vichy a year or three ago. Strange being in that collaborative enclave: it was an odd feeling to be in the bureaucratic heartland of Nazi sympathisers, even 60 years later. I then saw a TV doc a few weeks ago where American planes came under attack from the Vichy navy moored in its French Algerian port during the height of WWII.
That said, we can hardly see Paris as a hotbed of war-time resistance, can we?

Paul Duane said...

I'm several months in to making a documentary about Natan's remarkable story and have just found your piece. If you're free at any stage and there's any possibility of doing a brief on-camera interview please let me know! All the best, Paul Duane (

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