Lazare Meerson

Lazare Meerson (1900–1938) was a Russian-born art director in the cinema. After emigrating to France in the early 1920s, he worked on some notable French films of the late silent cinema and the early 1930s, particularly those of René Clair and Jacques Feyder. He worked in England during the last two years of his life. He had great influence on film set design in France in the years before World War II.

Lazare Meerson
Born(1900-07-08)July 8, 1900
DiedJune 28, 1938(1938-06-28) (aged 37)
Occupationart director
Years active1925-1938
Spouse(s)Mary Meerson

Career

Early life

Lazare Meerson was born in Warsaw, which in 1900 was part of the Russian Empire.[1] He may have begun studying painting and architecture in Russia, but after the revolution of 1917 he moved to Germany and by 1919 he had registered as an art student in Berlin. While in Berlin he gained some experience of designing for the theatre, before leaving for Paris in 1923 or 1924.[2][3]

In France

His first job in France in 1924 was at Films Albatros in Montreuil (a company which had been formed by Russian exiles in France) where he worked initially as a scene-painter and then as an assistant to some more experienced designers: Boris Bilinski (for L'Affiche), Alberto Cavalcanti (for Feu Mathias Pascal), and Pierre Kéfer (for Le Double Amour). By 1926 Meerson was appointed head of design at Albatros, and during the next three years he was responsible for the art direction on ten films. He formed particularly fruitful partnerships with Jacques Feyder (on Gribiche, Carmen, and Les Nouveaux Messieurs) and with René Clair (on La Proie du vent, Un chapeau de paille d'Italie, and Les Deux Timides).[2]

In several of his set designs of the 1920s, Meerson employed a 'restrained modernism', as in the spacious art-deco home of the wealthy Mme Maranet in Gribiche, or the architectural interior of a dancer's apartment, with its big white surfaces and sparse ornaments in Les Nouveaux Messieurs, or the sumptuous premises of the banker Saccard in L'Argent, in which the large open spaces facilitated long camera movements and the complex interplay of light and shadow.[4] Meerson, in 1927, said of his work: "It is an art of self-denial. The designer should constantly conceal himself before the other elements of the production. The frame should never encroach upon the work itself. The setting harmonises with the film. Released from it is that atmosphere which is so important both to the director and to the performers."[5]

With the end of the period of silent films, Lazare Meerson moved with René Clair to Films Sonores Tobis at Épinay-sur-Seine, where he was appointed chef-décorateur (head of design). Together Clair and Meerson worked on four of the most influential early sound films of French cinema, starting with Sous les toits de Paris (1930). These films created an image of Paris which came to be seen by the world as quintessential, filled with picturesque urban neighbourhoods and easily recognisable 'types' of character, stylised in presentation and already anachronistic.[6] Meerson's designs moved away from the monumental architectural sets which had characterised some 1920s productions, to favour a more intimate and painterly style which employed realistic detail and the play of lighting to create atmosphere.[7][2] Marcel Carné praised the impact of these artificial film sets, when created by filmmakers of talent: "If it is true that we would swear we had met in the street, in the course of our daily life, the varied characters of Sous les toits de Paris or of 14 Juillet, it is no less true that we would also swear we had suddenly found ourselves, while happily wandering around the city suburbs one day, face to face with one of the popular streets invented by Meerson. The blind-alley of the street singers, the dark lane which runs beside the Petite Ceinture railway, the little square for the dance in 14 Juillet, even though we know they are entirely constructed, they move us with their unrestrained authenticity, even more perhaps than if Clair and his team had actually taken us to the real locations of the story."[8]

When Jacques Feyder returned to France in 1933 after spending several years in Hollywood, he renewed his working relationship with Meerson on three sound films in France. Their partnership reached its peak with La Kermesse héroïque in 1935, for which Meerson created, in a suburban Paris studio, the 16th century Flemish town of Boom, with its streets, canals, public buildings and house interiors making reference to the paintings of Brueghel, Hals, and de Hoogh.[9] Even in this historical context, he sought to combine realism with stylization: "Here Meerson put to the test all his experiments using iron, glass, and oil paint on a large scale, and he found ingenious ways to adapt parts of the studio factory to give his fantasies ballast. Here he achieved that balance between authenticity and the imaginary that was his goal and trademark and that would set the tone for the work of his many disciples".[10] In addition to his film work at this period, Meerson also undertook other design projects such as the refurbishment of the Paris home of Jacques Feyder and Françoise Rosay,[2] and the creation of murals for the Casino in Monte Carlo.[11]

In England

In 1936 Lazare Meerson moved to England, first at the invitation of Paul Czinner to work on a film of As You Like It, and then joining Alexander Korda at London Films for a further six films, commencing with Fire Over England. Most of these were made at Korda's newly-built Denham Film Studios, whose huge resources initially impressed Meerson; subsequently however he began to have reservations about working for such a big studio with its Hollywood-style methods, and he missed the more intimate scale and personal relationships of his French productions.[12] While he was working on the sets for The Citadel in 1938, Meerson contracted meningitis and died suddenly, shortly before his 38th birthday. Among those who attended his funeral were René Clair and Jacques Feyder.

Reputation and influence

Shortly after his death the director Alberto Cavalcanti wrote a tribute to Meerson in which he highlighted his personal qualities as a loyal and adaptable collaborator. He was described as "quiet, even taciturn; dependable, brilliant when brilliance was required, but having none of the instability which so often goes with brilliance."[13]

Among the assistants or trainees who worked with Meerson on his French films during the 1930s were Alexandre Trauner, Jean d'Eaubonne and Georges Wakhévitch; they absorbed many of his ideas and their subsequent work in films saw the flowering of a style which has been given the label of poetic realism.[11] Meerson's influence upon the development of film set design was considerable. His personal style, marked by his Russian background and his experiences in Berlin, encouraged several trends in the cinema including that of poetic realism. His use of natural materials in the construction of sets, his carefully researched scenic recreations and his inventive use of false perspectives, always personally supervised at every stage of the work, established new standards in the art of film design.[14]

Personal life

Meerson was married to the ballet dancer and model Mary Meerson, who was also from Russia. (After his death Mary Meerson became the partner of Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque française.)[11]

Filmography

In the following films Lazare Meerson acted as set designer or art director.

Year Original title English title Director Notes
1924L'AfficheThe PosterJean EpsteinLM assisting Boris Bilinsky
1924Feu Mathias PascalMarcel L'HerbierLM assisting Alberto Cavalcanti
1925Le Double AmourJean Epstein
1925Le Nègre blancNicolas Rimsky, Henry Wulschleger
1925Paris en cinq joursNicolas Rimsky, Pierre Colombier
1925Les Aventures de Robert MacaireThe Adventures of Robert MacaireJean Epstein
1926GribicheGribiche; Mother of MineJacques Feyder
1926CarmenCarmenJacques Feyder
1927NocturneMarcel SilverShort film
1927La Proie du ventThe Prey of the WindRené Clair
1927Le Chasseur de chez Maxim'sThe Porter from Maxim'sNicolas Rimsky, Roger Lion
1928La condesa MaríaBenito Perojo
1928Un chapeau de paille d'ItalieThe Italian Straw HatRené Clair
1928Souris d’hôtelAdelqui Migliar
1928Les Deux TimidesTwo Timid SoulsRené Clair
1928L'ArgentMarcel L'HerbierLM with André Barsacq
1929Les Nouveaux MessieursThe New GentlemenJacques Feyder
1929CagliostroRichard OswaldLM with Alexander Ferenczy
1930Le RequinThe SharkHenri Chomette
1930Sous les toits de ParisUnder the Roofs of ParisRené ClairLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner
1930The Mystery of the Yellow RoomMarcel L'HerbierLM with André Barsacq and Lucien Jaquelux
1930Romance sentimentaleSentimental RomanceSergei Eisenstein, Grigori AleksandrovShort film
1931David GolderDavid GolderJulien Duvivier
1931L'ÉtrangèreGaston RavelAlso Italian version La straniera (1930), and German version Die Fremde (1931)
1931La Fin du mondeEnd of the WorldAbel GanceLM with César Lacca, Jean Perrier, Walter Ruttmann
1931La Fine CombineAndré ChotetShort film.
1931Le MillionLe Million; The MillionRené ClairLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner
1931À nous la libertéÀ nous la liberté; Freedom for UsRené ClairLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner. Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction.
1931Le Monsieur de minuitThe Man at MidnightHarry Lachman
1931Jean de la luneJean ChouxLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner
1931Le BalWilhelm ThieleLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner
1931Les Cinq Gentlemen mauditsThe Five Accursed Gentlemen; Moon over MoroccoJulien DuvivierLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner
1932Un coup de téléphoneGeorges LacombeLM with Eugène Lourié
1932Prisonnier de mon cœurJean Tarride
1932La Femme en hommeThe Woman Dressed as a ManAugusto Genina
1932Conduisez-moi, MadameAntoinetteHerbert Selpin
1932La Femme nueThe Nude WomanJean-Paul Paulin
1932Il a été perdu une mariéeLéo Joannon
1933Quatorze juilletBastille DayRené ClairLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner
1933CibouletteCibouletteClaude Autant-LaraLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner
1933La Femme invisibleGeorges Lacombe
1934PrimeroseRené Guissart
1934L'Ange gardienJean Choux
1934Lac aux damesLake of LadiesMarc AllégretLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner
1934Le Grand JeuJacques FeyderLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner
1934PolicheAbel Gance
1934AmokFyodor OtsepLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner
1934La Banque NémoNemo's BankMarguerite Viel
1934L'Hôtel du libre échangeMarc AllégretLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner
1934ZouzouMarc AllégretLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner
1935Justin de MarseilleMaurice TourneurLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner
1935Pension MimosasJacques FeyderLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner
1935Princesse Tam-TamEdmond T. GrévilleLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner
1935Les Beaux JoursMarc AllégretLM assisted by Jean d'Eaubonne
1935La Kermesse héroïqueCarnival in FlandersJacques FeyderLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner and Georges Wakhévitch (uncredited)
1936As You Like ItAs you Like ItPaul CzinnerLM assisted by Alexandre Trauner
1937Fire Over EnglandFire Over EnglandWilliam K. Howard
1937Knight Without ArmourKnight Without ArmourJacques Feyder
1937The Return of the Scarlet PimpernelThe Return of the Scarlet PimpernelHanns Schwarz
1938South RidingSouth RidingVictor Saville
1938Break the NewsBreak the NewsRené Clair
1938The Divorce of Lady XThe Divorce of Lady XTim WhelanLM assisted by Paul Sheriff and Alec Waugh.
1938The CitadelThe CitadelKing VidorArt direction completed by Alfred Junge after LM's death.

References

  1. Most sources (e.g. Ciné-Ressources) give Warsaw as Meerson's place of birth. Richard Roud however recorded that he was born in Karelia which in 1900 was a part of Czarist Russia bordering on Finland (in A Passion for Films: Henri Langlois et la Cinémathèque française. London: Secker & Warburg, 1983. p. 42).
  2. Tim Bergfelder, Sue Harris, Sarah Street. Film Architecture and the Transnational Imagination: Set Design in 1930s European Cinema. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007. pp. 62-63.
  3. Sarah Street, "Sets of the imagination: Lazare Meerson, set design and performance in Knight Without Armour (1937)", in Journal of British Cinema and Television, vol. 2, no. 1 (2005), p. 34.
  4. "Lazare Meerson" in Dictionnaire du cinéma des années vingt, in 1895, vol. 33 (2001).
  5. Quoted in Dictionnaire du cinéma français; sous la direction de Jean-Loup Passek. Paris: Larousse, 1987. p. 293: "C'est un art d'abnégation. Le décorateur doit s'éffacer constamment devant les autres éléments de la réalisation. Jamais le cadre ne doit empiéter sur l'œuvre elle-même. Le décor s'harmonise avec le film. C'est de lui que se dégage l'atmosphère si précieuse au metteur en scène comme aux interprètes."
  6. Dictionnaire du cinéma populaire français; sous la direction de Christian-Marc Busséno & Yannick Dehée. Paris: Nouveau Monde, 2004. p. 720.
  7. Dudley Andrews. Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995. pp. 179-182.
  8. Marcel Carné, "Quand le cinéma descendra-t-il dans la rue?", in Cinémagazine, vol. 13 (11), novembre 1933, pp. 12-14: "S'il est vrai que nous jurerions avoir rencontré dans la rue, au cours de notre existence quotidienne, les divers personnages de Sous les toits de Paris ou de 14 Juillet, il est non moins exact que nous jurerions pareillement nous être trouvé soudain, un jour de flânerie heureuse dans les faubourgs, face à face avec une des rues populaires imaginées par Meerson. L'impasse aux chanteurs, la ruelle obscure que borde le chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture dans Sous les toits de Paris; la rue en escaliers, la petite place du bal dans 14 Juillet, quoique nous les sachions fabriquées de toutes pièces, nous émeuvent par leur errante authenticité, peut-être davantage que si Clair et sa troupe s'étaient vraiment transportés sur les lieux mêmes de l'action."
  9. Georges Sadoul. Dictionnaire des films. Paris: Seuil, 1983. p. 165.
  10. Dudley Andrews. Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995. p. 184.
  11. "Lazare Meerson" at Ciné-Ressources. [In French] Retrieved 20 January 2017.
  12. Sarah Street, "Sets of the imagination: Lazare Meerson, set design and performance in Knight Without Armour (1937)", in Journal of British Cinema and Television, vol. 2, no. 1 (2005), p. 23.
  13. Alberto Cavalcanti, "Lazare Meerson", in Sight & Sound, vol. 7, no. 26 (Summer 1938) pp. 64-65.
  14. R.F. Cousins, "Lazare Meerson", in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, vol.4: Writers and Production Artists; 4th ed. (Detroit etc: St James Press, 2000). pp.580-582.
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