“Angels covered me up,” says Nathan Handwerker when asked how he fled, unharmed, from Poland to the U.S. in the 1910s. The usually stoic Nathan says this two more times — with increased emotion — during this particular audio interview, conducted a few years before Nathan’s death in 1974. Had the Nathan’s Famous franchise founder been thwarted, the five-cent hot dog would never have graced Coney Island, and we wouldn’t have Lloyd Handwerker’s 30-year labor of love, Famous Nathan.
Terrific documentaries are a dime a dozen; ones this multifaceted are to be cherished. Compiling alternately hilarious and teary-eyed reflections from relatives, macho ex-employees, and longtime regulars, Handwerker proves equally adept at ode, historical saga, and tragedy. The film harks back to an era when families were frightfully tight-lipped, when kids didn’t know how their relatives truly felt about one another. It’s hard on Nathan, a street-smart immigrant who browbeat his sons into helping run the family business, only to frown upon their meeker, paperwork-centered ways. But it’s also critical of his sons’ flights of fancy: One fatally overextended Nathan’s upon taking it over — it was sold to investors in 1987 — while the other launched an ill-fated rival chain.
It took over twenty years for Handwerker to bring his feuding father and uncle out of their shells on camera; the effect is staggering, with many a pregnant close-up. Most haunting, though, is Handwerker’s decision to conceal the dates of his footage; the varying color stock provides the only hint as to when scenes were shot. This lends the story an absorbing timelessness — the same rise and fall could essentially happen today, to anyone.
Directed by Lloyd Handwerker
Opens July 17, Cinema Village