Hot Docs 2023: Nathan-ism review


Serving in the aftermath of the Second World War, Nathan Hilu was assigned as a guard at the Nuremberg war trials. After he left the army, Hilu discovered art as a way of expressing himself and telling his story, earning a career as an illustrator in New York. In his debut feature, director Elan Golod interviews Hilu on his life and work.

“There’s surrealism and there’s cubism”, Hilu tells us. “This is Nathan-ism”. Hilu’s graphic style, intense colours, jagged, violently criss-crossing lines, and compositions that are not so much cluttered as they are rammed with text and spiky figures, are an assault on the senses. His work, part history, part autobiography, part graphic art, composed usually in crayon and unburdened by the sorts of aesthetic principles one might encounter in art school, defies categorisation.

His work’s vibrancy and energy are compelling, his style in rendering human caricatures is almost satiric in the tradition of Gillray or Cruikshank, yet his motivation is rooted deeply in the personal and autobiographical. As the film explores, Hilu’s Jewishness is central to his work, both as an illustrator working in New York, but also as a chronicler of his time at the Nuremberg trials. His anecdotes from this time are potentially a priceless historical resource, assigned as he was to guard some of the most notorious Nazi criminals, Albert Speer and Hermann Göring among them.

Much time is spent on his interactions with Speer, who the Jewish Hilu describes, incredibly, as his friend, who encouraged Hilu to explore his creativity. Scholarly voices lend context to the generous credit that Hilu awards Speer, who as an intelligent, well spoken and even polite man, often gave the impression of decency in contrast to his more obviously monstrous associates. Hilu’s reading of Speer informs a naivety to his character – and his art – that Golod teases out throughout his film. As a man in his 90s, Hilu is frail and seemingly vulnerable. His temper, which flairs up in a key moment late on in the film, is not that of a brute but of someone easily wounded. There is a yearning in him, almost a desperation, to be heard and believed.

As one commenter remarks, Hilu consistently finishes his sentences with the phrase, “that’s a true story”, as if he doesn’t expect to be believed. Of course, his protestations inevitably raise the question over the veracity of some of his claims. Through archival footage we learn that an attempt in the 1990s to publish some of work as a book was complicated by the publisher’s inability to verify his history as a former soldier. Golod’s film manages to clear up some of the questions around Hilu’s past, but his proximity to Nazi war criminals remains murky.

Nathan-ism, however, is not an investigative documentary, and is more interested in Hilu as an artist. It is moving to see the gentleness with which Golod and his other interviewees treat Hilu; as the documentary progresses a consensus seems to form that in the end it doesn’t matter whether Hilu really was friends was Albert Speer, or that he alone figured out how Göring committed suicide to evade his execution. The art that he produced as a result of these stories have an inherent value, his telling and re-telling of his story tells us something profound and important about the man regardless of their historical factual accuracy. Golod does not make great leaps or bounds in the documentary form, nor does his film present any earth-shattering revelations. But in its own way, Nathan-ism is an important, if not entirely verifiable, portrait of human creativity.

Christopher Machell

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