Ferenczy, Alexander (1896–1931)

A starry-eyed set designer who worked in German films and created Bauhaus villas.

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Sándor Friedmann (birth name), Sándor Ferenczi, Sándor Ferenczy, Alexander Ferenczy
set designer, architect
16 June 1896, Budapest, Austro-Hungarian Monarchy
4 March 1931, Neubabelsberg, Potsdam, Germany

Alexander Ferenczy (source: Pesti Napló, 1931. március 5. 11.)

Born in Budapest, Sándor Ferenczy studied architecture and interior design at the Municipal School of Applied Arts, Budapest and in Munich, and launched his career in the second half of the 1910s. He designed theatres and cinemas both in Hungary and in Germany. One of the first such buildings was the capital’s Renaissance Theatre (later the Radius film theatre on the site of today’s Thalia Theatre), the restructuring of which he is associated with. But Ferenczy not only rethought the theatre spaces and restaurant, but he also made the stage sets for works being staged, for example, for the play Pesti asszony (Lady of Budapest) that was the inaugural work of the Renaissance. Parallel with this, he was commissioned by the Comedy Theatre and his sets were used in the Ernő Vajda play Szerelem vására (Love Fair). From the very earliest days, many praised the European style and aethereal elegance of his designs. In the second half of the 1910s, changes were underway in theatre tastes and Ferenczy was perfectly equipped to meet these new demands. This is well illustrated by a journalist for Színházi Élet, who had the following to say of his set designs for the Comedy Theatre’s work Princ (Prince) in 1918:

“Today, the milieu is a primary necessity and the theatre audience demand a real, genuine image constructed with the refinement of modern applied art, and the stage writer cannot be indifferent to the framework in which what he has to say is interpreted.

The logic, which has hitherto been so missing, has modestly made its presence known again and the excesses of scenes of impossible structure have been replaced by the true interior based on architecture and applied arts, composed horticultural art and painters are faced with a new task by that grateful judgment, which was said about the worm-eaten backstage made according to today’s near official recipe.

It has thus become an important duty for the leading men of theatres to commission, in the now starting renaissance of stage design, serious artists qualified to tackle the multitude of tasks, as this is the only way to keep pace with today’s fully developed stage art on the great Western stages.” 1

Sándor Ferenczy became involved in filmmaking at the end of the First World War when he started working as a set designer for Corvin film studio. Films he worked on during this period were dramatic adventure stories and spectaculars interwoven with historical references and with a heavy sprinkling of mystery. Ferenczy became one of the closest associates of the legendary cinematographer at Corvin, István Eiben. Together they shot, for example, A 111-es (Number 111, director: Korda Sándor, 1919–1920), Névtelen vár I-II. (Nameless Castle I-II, director: Márton Garas, 1920), A lélekidomár I–II. (The Soul Trainer I-II, director: Márton Garas, 1920) and A sárga liliom (The Yellow Lily, director: Márton Garas, 1920). Over the years, fate brought this gifted designer into contact with countless artists who later also left the country, so it is no surprise that he met up with many old acquaintances in his first stop, Vienna. In the early 1920s, Korda Sándor and his wife, actress Maria Corda, and actor Pál Lukács, who later on in America was awarded an Oscar as Paul Lukas, as well as writer Ernő Vajda (Ernst Vajda) all lived in the city.

It is no coincidence that the most famous film Ferenczy worked on while living in Vienna was Samson and Delilah (1922). Later on, this film’s grandiose images served as convincing professional testimonials for the director and the writer – Sándor Korda and Ernő Vajda – as well as the stage designer himself.

The film is set in two parallel time planes, so we see alongside the famous ancient story how a modern Delilah, that is, a successful opera singer, deals with men. In this spirit, Ferenczy created two worlds: one an unbridled and exotic landscape of Antiquity, the other a civilized, elegant modern urban space. The screenplay “was brought to life with the most dazzling imagination by Sándor Korda, artistic director, and Sándor Ferenczi, designer of the sets and costumes as well as manager of the monumental structures. What’s best that the film produces in terms of performance and appearances is scattered generously. The panic scene in the theatre, the pursuit of the assassin on the theatre gallery, the technical structure of the stage are masterpieces of the art of filmmaking and would be a credit to any American film aiming for global success,” writes a contemporary critic.2

The Biblical-modern story was followed by another film with many Hungarian connections, Das Bildnis (director: Jacques Feyder, 1924), one of the main protagonists of which was Vilma Bánky, the producer was Ernő Szücs and Vita-Film. After this, Ferenczy once again set off and first went to Paris in 1924, then two years later he moved to Berlin.

Film and architecture

Villa Kenwin (source: Wikipedia )

Once in the capital of Germany, he quickly became a most sought-after architect. He was primarily engaged with designing the villas of wealthy local and Swiss citizens, and the interior designs of elegant bars and cinemas. One of his principal works is Villa Kenwin close to Montreux, which he created in partnership with German architect Hermann Henselmann for the British writer Bryher. Light was key to the streamlined building showing countless Bauhaus traits; many believed this was connected with Ferenczy’s motion picture thought processes.
Ferenczy’s own colleagues, in particular members of the Neubalbabersberg film colony, were also pleased to commission him. For example, he furnished the homes of Olga Tschechowa, Lissy Arna, and Willy Fritsch and Lilian Harvey. He designed a studio for graphic artist Theo Matejko in the most upscale part of Berlin, about which he wrote a lengthy article in Színházi Élet entitled ‘What is the studio of the modern artist like?’3 According to Ferenczy, ‘the age of Gothic, overdecorated studios with baldachins is long gone, the new age demands modern, practical studios and a harmonious environment where nothing can divert the artist’s attention from the creative process.’ In this spirit, he designed Matejko’s studio to have vast, tempered glass matt windows and light surfaces, comfort was ensured by leather armchairs that could be adjusted at the press of a button, floors carpeted with blue and golden-brown velour, and a drawing board with easily cleaned rubber surface standing on nickel-plated legs.

Naturally, in addition to architectural commissions, the German film industry also called on the expertise of Ferenczy.

In five years he designed sets for approximately 15 films including Der Zigeunerbaron (director: Frederic Zelnik, 1927), the mystic adventure film set among French aristocrats Cagliostro – Liebe und Leben eines großen Abenteurers, (director: Richard Oswald, 1929) and Der Anwalt des Herzens (director: Wilhlem Thiele, 1927) starring Lil Dagover. From these, Weib in Flammen (director: Max Reichmann, 1928) is interesting for its subject because the story is set in Budapest. It features Chain Bridge, Parliament and Andrássy Avenue, and the highpoint of the plot is the torching of a fashion salon in the capital. Although Hungarian critics found the film to be slightly confused and over-sentimental, the acting of leading lady Olga Tschechowa and the tourism promotional values of the work were unanimously praised.

Tragedy

Ferenczy married Lili Neufeld, daughter of wealthy Budapest bourse trader Gyula Neufeld, on 1 December 1929. It appeared that finally, he was fulfilled in his professional triumphs and in his private life. However, the career of the starry-eyed young man came to a sudden and tragic end. At dawn on 4 March 1931, he was driving his Auburn Automobile towards the Neubabelsberg UFA site when he suffered a fatal accident. According to reports from that time, the car was travelling at high speed and he skidded on the frozen road at a bend. Ferenczy was just 35 when he lost his life, with an invitation from London in his pocket on the way to world fame and the first sound film commissions. His death shocked the Hungarian communities in Budapest and Berlin, and it represented a massive loss for the German film industry as well.

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Notes

[1] A Princ díszletei. Színházi Élet, 1918/10. 27.
[2] A bibliától a mozivászonig. Sámson és Delila a Corvinban és a Kamarában. Színházi Élet, 1923/5. 37.
[3] Ferenczi Sándor: Milyen a modern művész műterme? Színházi Élet, 1928/52. 194–195.

Sources

Ferenczy Sándor. In: Castiglione Henrik – Székely Sándor: Filmlexikon. Budapest, é. n. 148.
Magyar Életrajzi Lexikon 1. kötet (A–K). Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1967. 499.
Éber László (szerk.): Művészeti Lexikon 1. kötet (A–K). Budapest: Győző Andor kiadása. 311.
A Princ diszletei. Színházi Élet, 1918/10. 27–28.
A Pesti asszony díszletei. Színházi Élet, 1921/18. 25.
A bibliától a mozivászonig. Sámson és Delila a Corvinban és a Kamarában. Színházi Élet, 1923/5. 35–38.
Ferenczi Sándor: Milyen a modern művész műterme? Színházi Élet, 1929/52. 194–195.
Ráskay László: Ferenczi Sándort, a neves filmépítészt halálos autószerencsétlenség érte
Berlin mellett. Pesti Napló, 1931. március 5. 11.
Halálos autókatasztrófa ért Berlinben egy magyar építészt. Ujság, 1931. március 5. 7.
Autószerencsétlenség folytán meghalt Ferenczy Sándor, az Ufa filmépítésze. Ellenzék, 1931. március 5. 2.
Ferenczi berlini magyar műépítész, akit autókatasztrófa ért, meghalt. Magyar Hírlap, 1931. március 5. 3.

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