“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
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 15, 2015