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Nathan-ism (2023)

| August 26, 2023

Nathan Hilu is an artist in his early 90s who sits hunched over his drawing pad switching between markers and crayons like a child with busy mind.  He talks incessantly, but what he has to say is fascinating.  Nathan was, in his youth, given a specific task by the United States Army, to act as prison guard to the Nazi officers who were being confined while on trial for war crimes – an odd task since Hilu himself is a Jew.  His experience dealing with men like Albert Speer, Julius Streicher and especially Hermann Göring drove him to become an artist and it is the focus of Elan Golod’s extraordinary documentary Nathan-ism, in which we see the power of art and memory on one man who tries to channel what he remembers before his time on this Earth is done.

Nathan’s art doesn’t look like much, at first.  He uses crayons and thick markers to evoke simple line drawings and color into a mash-up of images pulled from his memory and preserved on paper the way that, perhaps, they swim about in his mind.  And yet, that’s not all there is.  Nathan-ism might seem to have been enough to capture, on paper and on film, the story of a man who stood in the footsteps of history, listening to the greatest villains of the 20th century in their own voices in their own time.  But something else emerges too in the third act that poses questions and debate about the value of reliable witnesses.  Nathan Hilu has told the story so many times and put it onto canvas so often that in the last act what started as simple line drawings of what he remembered, have become a mish-mash of ideas, stories, theories, characters and ideas culled from other sources.  When researchers go looking for his military record, it shows that, yes, he was there but is what he remembers entirely accurate?

That’s not to accuse Nathan of misremembering or outright lying, but it calls into question how reliable a witness can be.  This was the major event of Nathan Hilu’s generation, and being Jewish, certainly one of the most important and tragic events for his people, so marking down what he remembers is important since the number of people who witnessed World War II is withering away.  This came to my mind through a connection, the singular event of my lifetime – September 11th – and what people remember and what memories will dwindle away as we get further away from the event.  They’re clear now but they will get fuzzier as time goes on.

The difference is that Nathan Hilu knows the time-constraints.  He knows that either his memory or his mortality will give out very soon and that pressing out what he remembers are vitally important.  That’s the value of memory but what does it say about art?  Nathan is certainly creating what experts refer to as “outside art” but what is Nathan’s art when separated from the events that inspired them?  As we first look at them, they look like art that a child would conceive, but attached to the context they take on a much deeper meaning.  What is contained in his artwork is something much deeper, something more vital – while he paints a canvas full of line-drawings of himself with Goering and Speer and Streicher, he reminds us that these “Monsters of History” were only men committing crimes.  They could have been shop owners, college professors, doctors, lawyers, anything, but they followed their leader on a devastating past the destroyed six million people.  Goering was responsible for the “Final Solution,” the Nazi plan to exterminate and eliminate all of Europe’s Jews through means of gassing and shooting.    

In that case, looking into his art is important even if it doesn’t represent what others consider to be “true art”.  What comes through Nathan’s story, mis-remembered or not, is an important lesson about the power of expression and the need to remind ourselves that the villains of history were human beings, that Hitler and his thugs were not Satanic or super-human.  Doing so pulls away their choice as human beings and makes excuses for their deeds.  What we hear from Nathan and what we see on his canvas challenges us not to dig for the exact accurate story but to listen to the lessons and the witnesses to history, to look into what they wright and what they paint and what they remember.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2023) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary