Paris in the Spring

So, early April saw me back in Paris, on top-secret Shadowplay business… except I’m about to reveal what that business is…

Regular Shadowplayer Paul Duane proposed to me the idea of a documentary about that shadowy and exotic figure of film history, Bernard Natan — producer in France in the late twenties and early thirties, head of Pathe, and eventually convicted of fraud, slandered as a pornographer, sentenced to jail and finally handed over to the Nazis.

I thought this was a swell idea, but wondered who would back such a film — then Paul found a fund specializing in films that couldn’t get funded any other way. We pitched the project, and they agreed it met that criterion. So now we’re making a documentary feature about a Romanian-French film producer, despite neither of us being Romanian or French or even speaking either language adequately. You can’t blame our contacts in France for looking puzzled.

The reason I’m telling you this is — well, I have to tell you sooner or later. And there’s no reason to remain secretive, I don’t think. And I’m curious if anybody out there has any expert knowledge on the period and personalities we’re dealing with. Apart from Natan himself there are his regular directors, who include Raymond Bernard, Maurice Tourneur, Henri Diamant-Berger, Leonce Perret, Fedor Ozep, Anatole Litvak and Michel Colombier. Then there are the people Natan gave a start to: Jean Gabin, Jacques Tourneur…

Research is already proceeding apace, but I’m very interested in suggestions…

I’m also interested in getting good copies of the Pathe-Natan films. Ultimately, Pathe themselves will supply their finest archive material, but for viewing and consideration, good copy DVDs, especially with subtitles, would be most welcome. Of particular interest: Ozep’s MIRAGES DE PARIS, Pierre Colombier’s CES MAITRES DE LA SANT, Litvak’s L’EQUIPAGE, Tourneur Snr’s DANS LA NOM DE LA LOI, Gremillon’s LA PETITE LISE, and pretty much any others.

23 Responses to “Paris in the Spring”

  1. This is exciting. I am excited.

  2. chuckv4 Says:

    Excellent! Looking forward to it.

  3. Me too! The research has been fascinating and fun, now we just have to work out what the movie IS. We know some of that, of course, but the story changes constantly as we learn more…

  4. it sounds fascinating and a really interesting if terrible period to deal with… astonishingly awful things happened during the war to film people

  5. though to lots of ordinary people too… I’m thinking of the German techicians who went into the Polish studios and pointed out all the Jewish technicans their ex colleages and and them sent off the the camps.

  6. Yes, there’s horrific stuff there. France was one of the better occupied countries in some ways — MOST of the Jewish population survived, many with help from their fellow countryfolk. But the degree of collaboration was staggering too…

  7. Bertrand Tavernier probably knows quite a bit, since he did a lot of background research for LAISSEZ-PASSER and he’s a major French cinephile with a wide range of reference. Other than that, I predictably, have nothing.

  8. David Boxwell Says:

    Danielle Darrieux, 95 this year, would be your greatest “get.”

    Great to see this project come to fruition.

  9. Tavernier is on our list, and we think we can contact him.

    Everybody we’ve spoken to in Frances says that Darrieux will never talk about this period, even though she’s in Mayerling, a late Natan production… Too bad…

  10. It’s a great subject, and Shadowplayers are already the beneficiaries of your research.

    After seeing several recommendations here, I watched Laissez-Passer recently, and thought it was so much better than the mostly mildly positive reviews suggested. Maybe people expected a tight plot, as opposed to, you know, what really happened.

  11. David Boxwell Says:

    A quick peruse of Wikipedia indicates he’s probably the most important guy in the history of entertainment in France. And beyond that nation’s borders.

  12. David Boxwell Says:

    One last living link to Natan’s studio: Gisele Casadesus, aged 20 when she appeared in ‘Lherbier’s L’AVENTURIER (34). She’s holding up well, at 98.

    You just missed Paulette Dubost (LE BONHEUR, 34).

  13. Yes, we’re hoping to contact her, but we don’t have an “in” yet.

    Agree re Laissez-Passer: I suspect most British critics didn’t get the references, but beyond that, I can’t see why they didn’t recognize it as an amazing recreation of a series of amazing stories.

  14. A shame I can’t be of help, but, y’know – wrong continent, wrong country, wrong coast.

  15. I guess I do have a recommendation for background reading, though the book is not specifically about movies. It’s “Grand Illusion: The Third Reich, the Paris Exposition, and the Cultural Seduction of France,” [pause for breath] by Karen Fiss. To the extent that really focuses on the 1937 Paris Exposition, where the Nazi and Soviet pavilions faced off against each other with the Eiffel Tower visible in between, there may be more architectural semiotics than you need. (Can that be possible?) But it’s also a very compelling portrait of the cultural and political climate that conditioned Vichy and collaboration. I think there’s a bit of discussion of the relationship between the pre-Occupation French and German film industries.

  16. David Boxwell Says:

    The first dude to have dude-on-dude sex on film ends up running a major component of the French film industry and perishing in the Holocaust.

    After just six hours of first learning about this, I am starting to really obsess. . .

  17. Well, Natan’s pornographic career has been wildly exaggerated, I’m afraid. It looks like our film will be the first source to give something like the true account of it, so I’ll hold back on saying more. But none of the films attributed to Natan look likely to be his.

    What we have instead is an amazing figure of film history obliterated by a smear campaign and consigned to oblivion, both as a man and even as a name.

    Katya, thanks, I’ll go in search of it.

  18. This sounds great. Very much looking forward to seeing it – sure it’ll be fascinating.

  19. Thanks — more news soon.

  20. This project sounds utterly fascinating. Have you come across a book called “Cinema’s Conversion to Sound: technology and Film Style in France and the US,” by Charles O’Brien (2005)? It’s more academic in tone, but has a good chapter on Pathé, which is replete with notes for further reading. I can track that down and copy the notes section if useful.

    Also happy to translate anything from French if useful at any point.

  21. That sounds VERY useful. Please do! Ironically, Natan’s conversion to sound sewed the seeds of his downfall, via a dispute over a patent for 16mm sound projection. But you’ll have to wait until the film comes out for more info on THAT…

  22. Okay, I’ll track the book down again and get you what seems most useful. I’ll pdf if the file isn’t too massive.

  23. […] Now it’s exactly one week before that release as I write, and I’m completely burned out. I have nothing more to offer. I just want a holiday. But it’s only the beginning. There’s quite a lot of radio and live appearance stuff yet to do, and the film I finished after Barbaric Genius – an even more punishing experience called Very Extremely Dangerous – is about to launch soon. And I’m in the middle of making a new film with the excellent David Cairns. […]

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