Famous Nathan (2014)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2015 Toronto Jewish Film Festival. For more information visit tjff.com and follow TJFF on Twitter at @tjfftweets.
Famous Nathan takes us through the history of the world famous Coney Island institution, Nathan’s Famous Frankfurter & Soft Drink Stand, and tells the classic story of the American Dream as Nathan Handwerker transcends his humble beginnings to create a uniquely American institution. Llloyd Handwerker, grandson of Nathan Handwerker, uses archival footage and interviews spanning decades to paint a vibrant portrait of Nathan’s and the colorful and often surly characters that served Nathan with undying loyalty. It’s a tale as old and familiar as America itself, but as Lloyd illuminates his fascinating family history he finds his own identity as both the progeny of a piece of Americana and a strong filmmaker in his own right.
In searching for his origins through the medium of film, Lloyd Handwerker proves himself to be a solid filmmaker…
We enter the world of the Handwerker family through grainy 8mm footage of children learning about the simple pleasures of life as grandparents from a Norman Rockwell painting cut fruit from a branch and pass it to their grandchildren. These are images from an era when the American Dream was still attainable and with the right amount of hard work a person could achieve anything. We see the sepia toned ghosts of the old country as the only known interview of Nathan tells his story of humble beginnings, early business acumen, and immigration from Poland to America with little more than ambition and the hope of building a better tomorrow.
Flashes of Americana fill the screen with deceptively nostalgic notions of simpler times, but times were never simple and families have maintained their secrets and comfortable lies for generations. As we learn the history of Nathan’s we also see the dubious nature of America’s recollection of its own past as hints of old family scars, secret infidelities, and age-old conflicts begin to emerge despite some family members’ best attempts to contain them. Despite the ubiquitous flaws that run in the background of any family history, we also see a man dedicated to his dream with the business acumen to turn it into a reality. We see a man who gained the respect and loyalty of his diverse employees through example, and we see the collapse of his empire when the typical problems that come with second generation business owners destroy the central ideals that made the institution thrive.
Famous Nathan is more reminiscent of the films of Jonas Mekas than it is contemporary documentaries, letting the past unfold while heightening the emotional intensity to allow the audience to connect at a visceral level.
Famous Nathan is about family, hot dogs, and the death of the American Dream as told by the friends and family that turned a hot dog stand into an international brand. In searching for his origins through the medium of film, Lloyd Handwerker proves himself to be a solid filmmaker, using experimental montages to capture the spirit of the mid-20th century by combining archival footage and old photographs with music and cinematic flair to breathe life into his deeply personal film. Famous Nathan is more reminiscent of the films of Jonas Mekas than it is contemporary documentaries, letting the past unfold while heightening the emotional intensity to allow the audience to connect at a visceral level. He shows respectful restraint in interviews with family members and former employees of Nathan’s, never pushing too hard for scandal but allowing the silence of the interviewees to fill in the gaps. He discovers the paper thin façade that is common in American families and we learn who the curators of the comfortable lies are from their unwillingness to approach a particular subject. Every family has at least a few.
Famous Nathan is about family, hot dogs, and the death of the American Dream as told by the friends and family that turned a hot dog stand into an international brand.