He emigrated to France in 1906 at the age of 20. In 1909 he worked as a projectionist in a cinema on the Rue Menilmontant in Paris where he met Marie-Louise Chatillon. They married and had two children.
In October 1910 Natan and three associates created a small production company, Ciné Actualités (with capital of 25,000 francs). The company produced some 30 one-reel films. In 1913 Natan founded a film processing company Rapid Films, which would become one of the leading French labs. He also created Rapid Publicité, which still exists today under the name, Jean Mineur, and Mediametrie.
Though a Romanian national, Natan enlisted on August 2, 1914 and served throughout the war. Cited twice, wounded, decorated with the Croix de Guerre, he was demobilized on October 11, 1918 with the rank of sergeant.
Naturalized in 1921, Bernard Natan expanded Rapid Films: he acquired the buildings on the rue Francoeur and the rue Cyrano de Bergerac, built adjoining workshops and editing facilities where he produced many films, among them the first footage of the 1924 Olympic Games. In 1926, he built two motion picture studios, which were inaugurated by War Minister Paul Painlevé.
In 1926, he associated with filmmaker Henri Diamant-Berger and a Briton, John Maxwell, to create Les Productions Natan, which produced a number of major commercial films such as Education de Prince, La Madone des Sleeping and La Merveilleuse vie de Jeanne d'Arc, among others. At the same time, Natan also coproduced films shot in his Rue Francoeur studios, most prominently Marcel L'Herbier's L'Argent.
In 1924, he joined the directorate of the Chambre Syndicale de la Cinématographie, serving as its treasurer. In 1929, he was elected vice president.
In late 1928, Charles Pathé concluded the sale of his company's assets (as early as 1918, he had declared that motion pictures were no longer profitable): he sold off his foreign production and distribution subsidiaries, including Pathé Exchange in the U.S., then the film labs in Vincennes For 50 million francs, Bernard Natan, backed by the Bauer and Marchal bank, bought the controlling stock in Pathe's company, stock issued especially for the acquisition.
On March 1, 1929, Natan became managing director of what had been a prestigious company but which was no longer more than an empty shell. Pathé Cinema's assets were now reduced to minor interests: a film processing lab in Joinville, stock in Pathé Baby and Pathé Rural 17.5 mm projectors, production of which, started on January 1, 1928, was in the red. Only 95 million francs of the 150 million paid by Kodak for the Joinville plant remained.
Bernard Natan announced plans to create a major integrated motion picture concern and proceeded to do so:
He first bought the Fournier exhibition circuit's 19 theaters, then other theaters. He also built theaters, notably the Marignan and the Ermitage, two Champs Elysées venues. In all, 62 theaters in France and Belgium. He equipped them for sound using the RCA sound system, for which he obtained exclusive rights for France.
The merger with Rapid Film brought Pathé Cinéma - now called Pathé-Natan - the Rue Francoeur's processing labs, editing facilities, studios and real estate value. Natan then bought the Sociètè des Cinéromans from Jean Sapène, with its seven Joinville studios, theaters and control of the distribution company Pathé Consortium. The Joinville and Francoeur studios, all equipped for sound, were considered among Europe's most modern facilities.
With his brother Emile in charge of production, Bernard Natan produced the first French talkies: Les Trois masques and Chiqué. From 1929 to 1935, Pathé-Natan produced some 70 feature films, among them, Au nom de la loi, Le Roi des resquilleurs, Les Croix de bois, Les Misérables as well as numerous coproductions whose number is hard to establish. He contracted talented leading directors of the period, including Marcel L'Herbier, Jacques de Baroncelli, René Clair, Jean Grémillon, Maurice Tourneur. Many actors, Jean Gabin among them, made their screen debuts in films bearing the Pathé-Natan logo. Natan also distributed French versions of many foreign productions, among them Disney's Mickey Mouse cartoons.
He developed production for Pathé Rural.
He revived Pathé Journal (which had ceased operation in 1927), making it the leading French sound newsreel.
He appointed Armand Tallier to manage the Ermitage cinema, which became a leading art film venue.
Working with the long term in view, he acquired the patent for Professor Chrétien's Hypergonar lens, the precursor of Cinemascope. He also bought the Baird television patent and a radio station, Radio Ile de France.
Pathé-Natan became the leading French film major.
To finance this expansion, it had to increase its capital from 55 to 160 million francs and issue 100 million francs in bonds.
Unfortunately, these two operations were only 50% financed by the Bauer & Marchal bank, which caused a cash flow crisis; problems finding credit led to a certain number of irregularities that eventually entailed law suits.
As of late 1930, some industrialists (with the apparent backing of Charles Pathé) engaged in overt maneuvers to buy (on the cheap) Pathé and its newly created assets. A vicious press campaign with antisemitic and xenophobic overtones was launched. Bankruptcy was predicted time and again, but the company survived this period of crisis. Early in 1936, after much tortuous maneuvering, the Tribunal de Commerce appointed an official receiver who quickly filed for bankruptcy: "the liabilities, estimated at 60 million francs, can never be met," the commercial court declared.
Natan, driven out of the company (which, contrary to legend, continued to operate profitably), strove to continue producing with such films as Pierre Chenal's La Maison du Maltais, Maurice Tourneur's Katia and Raymond Bernard's Cavalcade d'amour shot at the Saint-Maurice studios which Paramount had leased to him. His brother, Emile, founded Les Film Modernes and produced such popular successes as Anatole Litvak's Mayerling, Pierre Colombier's Le Roi, Sacha Guitry's Quadrille, and after the war, Henri Decoin's Trois télégrammes, Yves Allégret's Manéges and Richard Pottier's Violettes impériales. He died in 1962.
The battle for control of the company climaxed with the arrest of Bernard Natan late in December 1938, at a time when antisemitic propaganda had reach heights unimaginable today. He was convicted in 1939 and in 1941. Stripped of his French nationality, he was handed over to the Germans and deported to Auschwitz on September 25, 1942. He died several weeks later.
In the meantime, the Société Nouvelle Pathé Cinéma, created to exploit Pathé Cinema, discovered there were no liabilities, that it had always been in the black, and that it was capable of reimbursing the debtors and bond-holders (with compensation for late payment).
The business ( 90% of whose assets had been created by Bernard Natan) was to continue, with ups and downs, until its acquisition by Chargeurs in 1992, for 1b200m francs.
But the legend of the "swindler Natan, responsible for the embezzlement of hundreds of millions of francs, who ruined the Pathé empire," endured and is still found in film history books. Bernard Natan, who died in Auschwitz, is no longer around to establish the truth. Gilles Willems' dissertation will finally demonstrate the mendacity of this reputation and will reestablish the truth of Natan's real achievement.