People who show up to “Famous Nathan” expecting merely to learn about the history of the iconic Coney Island hot dog restaurant are setting the bar way too low.
Yes, you’ll learn a lot about the restaurant and its incredible popularity, and the rags-to-riches story of the Jewish immigrant who started it all in 1912, Nathan Handwerker.
You’ll even leave the theater practically tasting a Nathan’s Famous frankfurter in your mouth, or at least salivating for that signature “snap” of the casing when you bite into one.
But this 86-minute documentary — playing three times in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival — is so much more than just hot dogs, griddles and mustard.
Directed by Nathan’s grandson, Lloyd Handwerker, the 2014 film is a multilayered, creatively crafted glimpse into the inner workings, and familiar dysfunction, of a 20th-century Jewish family.
For example, Nathan’s intensity and dedication may have helped him build a hot dog empire, but his inability to show any love toward his sons, and his constant criticisms of them, wore down the family. One son, Sol, the filmmaker’s father, ended up leaving the family business and not speaking to his own brother, Murray, for decades.
There’s also the question of whether Nathan’s marriage to Ida was blissful or unhappy. The viewer gets differing accounts depending on which family member is interviewed.
In the dark himself about many of these deep-seated issues, the filmmaker employs an unconventional, kaleidoscope style that makes us feel as if we are along for the ride of discovery. Sometimes the film is grainy or out of focus, sometimes we hear static or the buzz of microphone feedback. When possible, he splices together footage of recent interviews with footage of interviews of the same people filmed in the 1980s (uncannily piecing together sentences from 30 years apart).
He also lets the camera roll before, during and after interviews, capturing many seemingly unimportant moments that slick documentarians would leave on the cutting room floor. These bits serve to build a film that is anything but routine.
It might seem a bit jumbly at first, but it quickly becomes easy to follow, and enjoyable.
There are many magical moments, such as relatives with Eastern European accents recounting family stories and secrets. A great-aunt asks the filmmaker as the camera starts rolling, “Vhut can I do for you? To bring you zumting to eat? A sandvich?” Other times one spouse will tell another to stop revealing so much — “Vee don’t talk about zat” — after it’s already been revealed. All thick with Yiddish inflection and Jewish underpinnings. One can’t help but smile.
The most dynamic part of the film is an audio interview with Nathan himself from the early 1970s. Taped by another one of Nathan’s grandsons, it’s apparently the only interview ever recorded of Nathan, who was born in Galicia, Poland, in 1892.
In heavily accented English that is at once simple, precise and lyrical, Nathan recounts his journey from the Old Country to New York City as an uneducated 19-year-old who couldn’t read or write. The story is illustrated with Nathan’s words, huge on the screen, making it easy to follow.
He talks about how “angels covered me up” when he traveled out of Europe. About taking orders from diners at Max’s Busy Bee on the Lower East Side even though he couldn’t speak English. About undercutting his former employer, Feltman’s, by selling hot dogs for a nickel instead of a dime. His wife can be heard in the background, telling him to wash his hands for dinner.
Lloyd Handwerker, a professional cameraman now in his late 50s, started working on this film more than 30 years ago, about 10 years after Nathan died. He ended up interviewing and filming 75 family members and former employees, many of whom offer fantastic insights.
From his 300 hours of material, we get to see just under an hour and a half. But it’s a pleasure to sink our teeth into even that much … even if you don’t like hot dogs.
“Famous Nathan,” 12 p.m. July 25 at the Castro; 12 p.m. July 26 at CinéArts@Palo Alto Square; 11:20 a.m. Aug. 2 at the California in Berkeley. (Not rated, 86 minutes) www.sfjff.org