Meerson, Lazare

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Art Director. Nationality: Russian. Born: 1900. Career: Left Russia in wake of the revolution, lived in Germany, then settled in France in 1924; 1936–38—worked in England. Died: In London, June 1938.

Films as Art Director:


Feu Mathias Pascal (The Late Mathias Pascal) (L'Herbier) (asst); Le Nègre blanc (Rimsky and Wulschleger); Gribiche (Mother of Mine) (Feyder); Les Aventures de Robert Macaire (Epstein)


Carmen (Feyder); La Proie du vent (Clair) (co)


Un Chapeau de paille d'Italie (An Italian Straw Hat) (Clair); Le Chasseur de chez Maxim's (Rimsky and Lion)


Cagliostro (Oswald); Les Deux Timides (Clair); L'Argent (L'Herbier) (co); Souris d'hôtel (Millar); Les Nouveaux Messieurs (The New Gentlemen) (Feyder); La Comtesse Maria (Perojo)


Le Requin (Chomette)


L'Etrangère (Ravel); Jean de la Lune (Choux); David Golder (Duvivier); Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris) (Clair); Le Mystère de la chambre jaune (L'Herbier)


La Fin du monde (Gance); Le Million (Clair); Les Cinq Gentlemen maudits (Duvivier); Le Monsieur de minuit (Lac hman); Der Ball (Thiele); A nous la liberté (Clair); Prisonnier de mon coeur (Tarride); Un Coup de téléphone (Lacombe) (co); Le parfum de la dame en soie (L'Herbier)


La Femme en homme (Genina); Conduisez-moi madame (Selpin); La Femme nue (Paulin); Le Quatorze juillet (Clair); Il a été perdu une mariée (Joannon)


Ciboulette (Autant-Lara); La Femme invisible (Lacombe); L'Ange gardien (Choux); Primerose (Guissart); Amok (Ozep)


Lac-aux-Dames (M. Allégret); Le Grand Jeu (Feyder); La Banque Nemo (Viel and Choux); Poliche (Gance); L'Hôtel du libre-échange (M. Allégret); Zouzou (M. Allégret)


Pension Mimosas (Feyder); Justin de Marseille (Tourneur); Princesse Tam-Tam (Gréville) (co); Les Beaux Jours (M. Allégret); La Kermesse héroïque (Carnival in Flanders) (Feyder)


As You Like It (Czinner); Fire over England (Howard)


Knight without Armour (Feyder); The Scarlet Pimpernel (Schwartz); South Riding (Saville); The Divorce of Lady X (Whelan); Break the News (Clair)


The Citadel (K. Vidor)


On MEERSON: articles—

Jourdan, R., "Le Style Clair-Meerson," in La Revue du Cinéma (Paris), no. 27, 1931.

Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1938.

Bandini, B., in Cinema (Rome), no. 130, 1941.

Barsacq, Léon, "Le Décor de Lazare Meerson," in Jacques Feyder, Brussels, 1949.

Ciment, Michel, and I. Jordan, in Positif (Paris), October 1979.

Cavalcanti, Alberto, in Cinématographe (Paris), March 1982.

Film Dope (Nottingham), March 1989.

Ficat, C., in Cinémathèque (Paris), May 1992.

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A gifted artist and student of architecture, Lazare Meerson left Russia after the October Revolution to work first in Germany before settling in France. Influenced both by Russian constructivist theory and the Expressionist movement of the Berlin studios, he brought to Paris creative talent, experience, and artistic skills which were to make him the most influential set designer of his generation. His association with Alexander Kamenka, a fellow Russian emigré and director of the Société des Films Albatros at the Montreuil Studios, resulted in a successful collaboration with several leading directors, notably Jacques Feyder, Marcel L'Herbier, and René Clair. Already the group of expatriate Russian filmmakers at Montreuil had encouraged the rejection of conventional theatrical trompe l'oeil painted scenery in favour of more substantial architecturally conceived sets built from natural materials in order to create greater authenticity. Their achievements led to a new perception of the designer's role in the production of mood and meaning in film, and henceforth they were invited to work more closely with the director to express in plastic terms the essential tenor of the film narrative. In this conducive environment, Meerson's talents flourished and his influence grew, but he modestly argued that his sets were there simply to discretely serve a film's action and not to impose upon it: subject matter, the quality of the acting, and mise en scène should remain the prime considerations. The value of set design, he maintained, lay in the atmosphere it could generate to inspire actors and director alike as they worked towards their artistic statement.

Meerson's long association with Feyder began in the mid-1920s with Gribiche, for which he created spacious, yet deliberately uninviting sets to epitomize a wealthy American's luxurious modern apartment. A studied attention to detail and mood soon became his trademark. For Carmen he evoked the character of the lovers' café in Seville with meticulously observed architectural features; for Les Nouveaux Messieurs a spectacularly detailed studio reconstruction of the Chamber of Deputies was undertaken, and for Le Grand Jeu the representation of the colonial garrison and its mess was similarly impressive in its authentic feel. The powerfully realist decors of Pension Mimosas with an atmospheric rendering of low gambling dives and the eponymous boarding house confirmed Meerson's adherence to poetic realism. However, it was with La Kermesse héroïque, perhaps France's most successful historical film, that Meerson's work with Feyder achieved new heights. The studio reconstruction of a 17th-century Flemish town, complete with canals and natural vegetation, brilliantly recreates the tone and perspectives of Dutch and Flemish paintings of the period.

For L'Herbier, Meerson initially worked as an assistant to Cavalcanti on the decors for Feu Mathias Pascal. Here memorable cluttered sets conveyed the closed and claustrophobic world of French provincial society, while a dramatically counterpointed Rome apartment building characterized by large, unadorned rooms signalled a new mood of liberation. The hallmark of his designs for L'Herbier's version of Zola's L'Argent was a series of spectacularly grandiose sets. Working in collaboration with Léon Barsacq, he constructed a magnificent bank interior, a huge banqueting hall, a restaurant, and opulent private chambers which included a circular room representing the globe. All were to serve as visual metaphors for money's power and universal influence.

Meerson's association with René Clair began when he worked with Bruni on the imaginative sets for the mysterious castle in La Proie du vent. His subsequent designs mirror the director's concern with social issues or social satire. For Un Chapeau de paille d'Italie he reproduced in consummate ironical detail the decorative Henri II style of furnishing so favoured by the French middle classes of the Belle Epoque, while for Les Deux Timides the life-style of two lawyers is differentiated through objects which acquire narrative significance such as an old sewing machine or a collection of less than comfortable chairs. The authenticity of the central Court Room scenes derives from minutely observed detail carefully reproduced in the studio sets. With the advent of sound, Meerson accompanied Clair to the Tobis studios where, for the next four films he collaborated successfully with the cameraman Georges Périnal. For Clair's first sound film, Sous les toits de Paris, both exteriors and interiors were studio-built, with Meerson ingeniously using parts of the Tobis buildings themselves for his sets. The stylized decors, realist in mode but imbued with an air of romantic nostalgia, conferred on his representation of the working-class districts of the city a poetic quality which initially confounded audiences accustomed to the authenticity of location shooting. However, the carefully crafted sets with their evocative rooftops, chimneys, narrow streets, and cafés were soon to be critically acclaimed. Similar stylizations were employed for both Le Quatorze juillet with its flag-bedecked streets and its false perspectives, notably the magnificent flight of steps, and Le Million, a comedy about a lost lottery ticket, which involves a chase across the rooftops of the city, once again immediately identifiable as Paris, but a Paris charmed by the air of joyful fantasy which characterizes the film's mood. The dreamlike quality was in part achieved through an innovative use of tulle in the set construction. For A nous la liberté, a left-wing satire of big business and mass production methods, comparisons are established between factory and prison. Here the cold, futuristic sets with parodistic allusions to Art Deco, express through their disturbing proportions the dehumanizing nature of the factory process and the pursuit of profit.

Tempted by Alexander Korda to join his London Film Productions at the superbly appointed Denham studios, Meerson moved to England, where he worked until his sadly premature death. Although a number of worthy films resulted, none matched the quality of his French productions. Among the more memorable sets of this period were an impressive castle complete with black mirror floors for Czinner's As You Like It, the deserted Russian station for Feyder's Knight without Armour, and, working for the only time for a film in colour, the London barrister's flat which is at the centre of Whelan's comedy The Divorce of Lady X.

Meerson's contribution to the evolution of film set design can hardly be overstated. His personal style, shaped out of his own artistic talent and the influences of his Russian formation and the experience of Berlin, encouraged several developments in the cinema including that of poetic realism. His use of natural materials in set construction, his meticulous studio recreations and finely worked false perspectives, reinforced by his exacting personal supervision of the work at every stage, ensured new standards for the art of film decor. His stylized evocations of the poorer quarters of Paris broke new ground, while his frequently enormous sets opened up new opportunities for cameramen and experiments in the evocative play of lighting. The work of many designers, particularly that of Trauner, Douy, and Wakhévitch, testifies to his seminal influence.

—R. F. Cousins