Here’s a press release about a new novel by Josh Frank, Black Francis (of the Pixies) and with illustrations by Stephen Appleby.
Excitingly, the novel features Bernard Natan as a character. Since I have co-directed, with Paul Duane, a film, NATAN, which seeks to draw attention to this forgotten giant of French cinema, I’d normally be extremely happy about anything shining a light on Natan’s neglected career.
Unfortunately, the novel appears to recycle Vichy-era untruths about Natan’s rumoured involvement in pornography, specifically crediting him with production of LA BONNE AUBERGE (THE GOOD INN), “France’s first pornographic film.” The film, also known as SCENE PORNOGRAPHIQUE and A L’ECU D’OR, is thought to have been made in 1908, and so it’s the earliest surviving porn film from Europe, but given the low rate of survival of this kind of material (ordinary films have often been preserved; porn films have been actively destroyed) it’s highly unlikely to have been the first. Natan was in Paris at this time, and he was convicted of some kind of involvement in stag films a couple of years later — but absolutely nothing in the way of evidence connects him to this film.
A few years after his porn conviction, the French police dumped a load of seized film cans in the Seine — as they did so, they were arrested by other policemen for pollution. This farcical incident, much reported in the press, probably marks the destruction of Natan’s illicit film work, whatever it may have been.
I haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t say how accurately the press release reflects its content. The screening of Melies’ TRIP TO THE MOON with UN CHIEN ANDALOU suggests a slightly loose approach to history, though — those two shorts, produced twenty-seven years apart, have nothing artistically in common — it would be like tying TAXI DRIVER together with FINDING NEMO.
Of course, it’s a historical novel, not a work of historical research. But I think there IS a responsibility to be accurate where there’s a danger of misleading the reader. We know that Abraham Lincoln wasn’t a vampire hunter, but most people do not know who Bernard Natan was, and are prepared to believe anything about him if it sounds remotely plausible. And when you’re dealing with a man whose reputation was deliberately destroyed by anti-Semites, as part of a campaign that ended with his deportation to Auschwitz and death, repeating those lies strikes me as… not a nice thing to do. Especially when he still has living relatives.
So I really hope the book isn’t as distorted a view of history as it appears to be. If it is, I hope we can grab some of the limelight to tell prospective readers just what kind of fiction it is. How much is fact, how much is speculation and how much of it is recycled antisemitic propaganda? If you’re in London on the 7th, please go along to this event and ask awkward questions.
On a happier note, Thomas Doherty, author of the magisterial Hollywood and Hitler 1933-1939, who introduced a screening of NATAN at Brandeis, has written an overview of the facts which is probably the clearest and most complete I’ve seen. So the truth, as someone once said, is out there. Here.