Archive for Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions

Plagiarism Corner

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on August 16, 2019 by dcairns

“However, the Golem sets are far removed from the Caligari designs. The houses with their stiff, very tall, very narrow gables recall authentic medieval buildings; the design is a barely abstract interpretation of an unsanitary and overpopulated ghetto. In addition, and this is another contrast in expressionist films, a formal correlation exists between the sets and the costumes. Here the high gables parallel the Jews’ pointed hats.”

I really love Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions: A History of Film Design by Leon Barsacq, quoted above. It’s one of the first proper film books I owened, along with Brownlow’s Hollywood: The Pioneers. I sold both books at some point, then bought replacements because I felt I needed to own them.

So I was kind of scandalized when, researching DER GOLEM for a forthcoming piece, I stumbled upon the following passage in Lotte Eisner’s earlier The Haunted Screen ~

“This explains why the sets of The Golem are far removed from those of Caligari. The original Gothic forms are still somehow latent in these houses with their steeply-pitched thatched roofs. Their angular, oblique outlines, their teetering bulk, their hollowed steps, seem the none too unreal image of a distressingly insanitary and overpopulated ghetto where people actually live. The narrow gables are somehow echoed in the pointed hats and wind-blown goatees of the Jews, the excited fluttering of their hands, their raised arms clutching at the empty yet restricted space.”

Both works are translated: Roger Greaves did Eisner’s English-language version, Barsacq (a talented production designer) was translated by Michael Bullock and his book revised and edited by Elliott Stein. I strongly suspect that if you go back to the French editions, the phrases “a barely abstract interpretation of” and “the none too unreal image of ” will come out identical, proving not only that Eisner is a better writer than Barsacq, but that her translator is better than his translator.

It was the bit about the beards that made me realize I’d read these thoughts before. It’s a bit tenous, the beard argument, not one of Lotte’s finest.

Oh well, maybe this is becoming an OCCASIONAL SERIES, since I already gave Bogdanovich crap for recycling another journalist’s interview with Leo McCarey. If I reread all my favourite film books will I find a pilfered passage in each? How disillusioned can you get?

Quote of the Day: Clair on Barsacq

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , on June 1, 2009 by dcairns

This is René Clair’s introduction to Léon Barsacq’s Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions. It’s so lovely I wanted to share it.




Barsacq’s sketch for René Clair’s LE SILENCE D’OR — an ancient movie studio recreated in a modern movie studio.

Scenery? In the theater, scenery is normal, since the stage is surrounded by walls that it would be better to hide behind some kind of decoration, such as a painted backdrop or black velvet curtain.

But in films, where, like fables, “the stage is the universe,” why talk of scenery? The term is as inaccurate as the term “staging a film,” when there is no stage. Film “scenery” is not decoration; it’s generally a construction, a living room or a restaurant, for example, that tends to look the way the same living room or restaurant would look in reality. Now we need to know what we mean by “reality.”

A photograph is not reality but a reproduction of reality that we take for reality because of a convention we are so used to that we no longer recognize the deception involved. We refuse to throw away this piece of cardboard if it bears the features of someone we love, but to a dog, a photo of his owner is just a piece of cardboard.

From the very birth of moving pictures, a dialectic developed. The Lumière brothers, who came to films from photography, focused on aspects of reality (today their followers talk of cinéma-vérité). In turn, Méliès, who came to films from illusionism and the theater, was less interested in reproducing what he saw than in transforming it into what he imagined. A magician, he produced as if from a hat a surreal world that prefigured both the distortions of Caligari and the contemporary fantasies of science fiction. Between these two extremes lies the concept of “imitated” reality, the equivalent of sculpture as opposed to a plaster cast.

In this area, the set designer, however realistic his sets, can impose a style. The height of art is reached when this style relates so closely to that of the work itself that the audience pays no special attention to it. So we could say with a minimum of paradox that in films, the most successful set is the least noticeable one.

barsacq1PORTEBarsacq design for PORTE DE LILAS, AKA GATES OF PARIS.

Léon Barsacq enjoyed that kind of success, and yet, to a trained eye, whatever he designed revealed his touch. So, for the film The Gates of Paris, he built a whole series of streets and alleys whose reality, I think, few spectators would suspect. But when we tried to cut some shots of a real street into the shots of our fake streets, we had to give up the idea. The styles were too different. We might say that reality paled alongside its imitation. “You wouldn’t recognize her,” we sometimes say about a pretty woman surprised by a newsreel camera. Make up her face, light her properly, and you’ll recognize her. The same is true for sets.


Barsacq sketch for LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS.

Here a master of the art tells the story of these great make-up artists of reality, the film set designers. This book written by Léon Barsacq in the last years of his life preserves the memory of works existing only as a few shadows on a fragile strip of film. What castles built for a few hours, what phantom towns, what still-new ruins! In Hollywood they used to take tours through these plywood and plaster cities, those imitation streets where the fake patina of paint was covered by the patina of time. A Romantic poet could have dreamed among those decrepit buildings that once imitated the past, later caricatured it, and today have disappeared. Fiction or reality? Méliès or Lumière? In our own memories, the real world where we thought we lived blends with the world of illusion.


The 7 Wonders of the Pre-Code World #6: Grot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 22, 2009 by dcairns


What visions of splendour that name conjures up! These snaps are all from LITTLE CAESAR, but the production design/art direction of Anton Grot graced countless films of the ’30s (and ’20s, and ’40s). I think visually he may have had more to do with the look of some of these films than the credited director. Certainly Michael Curtiz would have had something to say about the look of DR X or CAPTAIN BLOOD, whether or not anybody understood him, but I could easily see someone like Mervyn LeRoy simply following a storyboard for these great establishing shots ~




Check those zig-zags!

I first read of Mr. Grot in Leon Barsacq’s nifty textbook Caligari’s Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions, A History of Film Design, which my dad bought me when I was a kid. I think at the time I was kind of disappointed that the book wasn’t really about Caligari and horror films, or film directing per se, but about the speciality subject of film design. And yet, the images in the book stayed with me — I’ve been trying to recreate versions of the Caligari image on the left all through my “career” — there’s even a version of it scripted in one of the feature projects I’m working on right now. The malevolent cross-legged man in the middle of the room!

So thanks, Dad.

Barsacq himself was a distinguished designer, closely associated with Duvivier, Carné and Clair, and his book opened up whole worlds to me — images got embedded in my unconscious, and the tricks of the trade impressed my youthful mind: forced perspective, the Schufftan process, matte paintings and hanging miniatures — THIS was the way to make movies. I don’t recall Barsacq having any particular agenda against realism, but his taste was obviously more attuned to spectacular fantasy and blatant trompe-l’oeil effects. His sensibility crystallized my own.