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Images of the day. From Sketch to the Screen: "Hôtel du Nord" (1938)

Above: Alexandre Trauner's sketch for Canal Saint-Martin and Hotel (second building from right).

Besides classical Hollywood, one of the other periods of film history in which studio production design has been so highly noted is the French poetic realist cinema of the 1930s. That period was the peak of creativity and influence of set designers in French film industry since the magical two-dimensional background paintings of Georges Méliès. The achievements of the era saw the making and consolidation of the reputations of designers in France, and growing critical and public interest in the nature of film design.  Collaborations between director René Clair and art director Lazare Meerson had been widely seen in Europe and in even North America, where factory’s sets from À nous la liberté (1931) became a source of inspiration for Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).

Among the architects of poetic realist cinema, one of the most skillful, imaginative and prolific was Meerson’s assistant, Hungarian born Alexander Trauner (1906-93), whose every work exhibits details at once realist and charged with poetic significance. During his French years and before moving to Hollywood to work for directors such as Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann, Trauner had a fruitful collaboration with Marcel Carné in eight and a half films (the half, an unfinished film, was La fleur de l’âge, 1947), that started with Drôle de drame (1937) and comes to an end with La Marie du port (1949).

Between these two films, Trauner is best remembered for creating the gloomy atmosphere of a doomed port in Port of Shadows (1938); the dreamy Paris of 18th century in the Gone with the Wind of French cinema, Children of Paradise (1945); and finally, the reproduction of Paris metro in real scales in Les portes de la nuit (1946), which was a big commercial and critical flop and the end of ambitions of poetic realism.

Hôtel du Nord (1938) was the beginning of making huge and highly detailed sets of a real Paris in the movie studios. For Hôtel, Trauner designed and build the Canal Saint-Martin and the surrounding buildings that were famously incorporated into the visual field of Carné's camera in ways that expand the cinematic space while also extending the authenticity of the Parisian representation:

Above: The real Canal Saint-Martin, around the time of the making of Hôtel du Nord.

Above: Constructing sets at the studio.

Above: What we see in the finished film—the magical Paris of Alexandre Trauner.

It was after this hyper-realist approach in film architecture that regular visits by the press to illuminated sets became a step in the pre-publicity of a major French film, with the set open to comment before the release of the film. In this way, the matter of evaluating the set and assessing its contribution to the film’s success became a focus of French cinematic discourse (see, for example, Geschite des Films by Enno Patalas and Ulrich Gregor, one of the most important books on the history of EU cinema), with the criteria by the which the set was judged being verisimilitude and an attendant of "visual fluency": “What a designer refrains from doing is almost more important than what he actuallLy does,” explain Trauner, “he’s like a sculptor who eliminates material from the marble block. He cannot show everything; he chooses the significant elements, the unexpected ones, and these must look true, they must sound right.” [1]

Jacques Aumont and Michel Marie in their book L’analyse des films point out that even Andre Bazin in his famous film discourses in “Travail et Culture” paid detailed attention to set design and its elements. According to them, in Bazin’s 20-page transcribed lecture on Le jour se lève (Carné/Trauner, 1939) there are numerous mentions of architecture in film, Jean Gabin’s hotel room and whatever is “visible” in this room. Bazin shows that how architectural elements are used as a device to predict the tragedy of Gabin and even help in creating the ambience of failure and self-destruction. Trauner saw his role as helping the mise-en-scene so that the spectator had an immediate grasp of the characters’ psychology. [2]


[1] Bergfelder, Tim, Sue Harris, and Sarah Street. Film Architecture and the Transnational Imagination: Set Design in 1930s European Cinema. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007.

[2] Ponzer, André, updated by R. F. Cousins. "Alexandre Trauner." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Volume 4. Writers and Production Artists. Eds. Tom & Sara Pendergast. Detroit: St. James Press, 2004.


Film architecture is created in film studios, places on the fringe of reality. Anything that is built is usually only present in part, and made of impermanent materials. Perhaps it should be called cineplastique. It is a dynamic and constantly transforming architecture, in contrast to the architectural traditions of the real world.  Using architectural fragments, models, back projections, mirror tricks, painted backdrops, large-format photographs and virtually generated settings creates this unique world. It is sometimes enough to tell a story if it is simply linked with a building, like the Bates Motel in Psycho or the German fortress in La grande illusion.  Yet however near, however tangible film architecture ultimately may seem, it also remains vague, fleeting, and a mere impression. They are projections of dream spaces, designed, shaped and built in a film architect's workshop. As Wolfgang Jacobsen points out, "film is a laboratory of modernism. Film architecture is a laboratory of film modernism."  And as an architect, I must confess that I find it more dazzling, more influential, and without doubt more dramatic than real architecture.

Interesting and informative. Thanks!
Fascinating. Hope to hear more on this theme…
Ray M
Fascinating essay. Thank you! To someone who’s never worked in film, it remains almost incredible that building these gorgeous, elaborate sets could possibly be more economical than simply shooting on location . . . One of the grand ironies of cinema, I guess.
Gotta agree with Andre Bazin about “Le jour se lève” room.
A lovely film.
A truly enchanting film.

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