From East to West – the History of Movie Poster Design
The Americans and the Soviets fought the Cold War in all spheres of society. One of the most unlikely places was the film poster industry where countries like Poland and the Czechoslovakia were able to prove their designs were far superior to anything the Western World were producing.
First produced in France in 1870, it didn’t take long before posters were adorning the walls of all European cities and towns. But while many saw posters as an advertising tool, the Polish helped redefine it as modern art form, commissioning artists such as Stefan Norblin to utilize the popular styles of those times such as Art Noveau. By the time the Polish had established a film industry, posters were helping communicate some of the first images of a newly independent state.
Unfortunately, there are few remaining examples of Polish film posters during this time, but the following are examples of posters advertising for products and services.
Despite similar beginnings, Czech film poster art quickly evolved into the no nonsense advertising techniques of America. There were exceptions, such as Willy Rotter’s poster of the 1933 Czech film Ecstasy, but in general they focused on headshots of the stars and used typography that suited the film. The industry had become so formulaic that when the Germans invaded the in 1938 they simply had to tighten the screw.
Both Poland and Czechoslovakia suffered greatly under Nazi rule, but while the Communist takeover brought initial euphoria, it quickly dissolved into a feeling of mass déjà vu. A new, virtually alien ideology had to be enforced and again this meant the film and poster had to come under state control. This time the instructions were simple; you must mold your images around our Communist slogans.
At this point, it would be wrong to state the USA film poster designers were enjoying complete independence; much of their industry had become monopolized by the National Screen Service and the original Hollywood posters from 1943, right through to the mid-80s, all carry the NSS mark and tag. It is difficult to say just how much control the NSS had, but in a film industry already constrained by the production code, one can assume they had a firm grip. For one film, they would print first an advance poster advertising the coming attraction, followed by two regular posters in two or more styles, and finally a review poster carrying some of the positive reviews the film had received. If the film won an Oscar, they would release a fourth award poster.
In 1947, after a slew of post-war propaganda films, Poland took the important step of signing a treaty with the British film magnate Arthur Rank to import British films. The agreement suited both countries, but didn’t extend to a truce in the cultural war, Polish film magazines publishing articles not criticizing the films themselves but British poster designs. In there, probably state sponsored opinion they depicted nothing but violence and sexual depravity. Of course, the truth was a little different. The brash British designs had simply showed social realism up as the restrictive and out of date style it was.
The Polish government acted quickly, offering complete artistic freedom to a whole new generation of poster artists. The likes of Witka Gorka, Tryk Tinpinski and Jan Lenica took to it with an abandon. Their designs still hinted at the dull colors and one dimensional designs of social realism, but their surreal near rebellious style often superseded the film itself. What many were now calling the Polish poster school now had the power implement its own rules; No head shots, no movie stills and no necessary direct connection to the title.
In the mid to late fifties, the Czechoslovakians were beginning to take the first tentative steps into the calmer climes of post Stalin Europe. First, there came an exhibit of the Polish posters. Then inspired partly by these and partly by the films coming out of Western Europe they began to make a few vaguely anti-state films. When the state did nothing to oppress them, they made a few more. When the state started to lend its support, they marched boldly into what the Czechs still regard as the golden years of Czech national cinema.
If Oscar winning Czech films such as Closely Watched Trains and Loves of a Blonde were at once both daring and confident, then the posters were extraordinary. Yes, they were using what the Poles had already done, but few would deny they weren’t improving it, incorporating new techniques such as photomontage and collage. In true sixties spirit they were forging a voice all of their own.
The Soviet invasion in 1968 cut them off like a storm. Overnight they reinstated a government that would toe the Soviet line and direct the nation back towards the political ideology of Lenin and Stalin. Film industries across Eastern Europe suffered dramatically. The Polish and Czechs still produced film posters in the style of the fifties and sixties, but that was just it, they harked back to the fifties and sixties. Nothing new was being produced.
During the sixties, Hollywood was arguably going through the most important transitional phase of its history. The production code was slowly fading, but for the younger generation it was well gone. Why watch Hollywood fare when they could watch the exploitative flicks of independent companies such as American Pictures? Why even watch an American film when edgy film movements were springing up all across Western and Eastern Europe? Hollywood was losing money because they had neglected what was now the biggest market; the teenager. But really, their needs were quite simple. They wanted exactly what the B-movies were offering in their posters, colorful, in your face images that promised sex, humor and violence.
Hollywood had to deliver and in 1967 they finally ended the production code and introduced a rating system. It completely liberalized the industry. Filmmakers such as Martin Scorcese who had learned their trade in B-movies stepped into the mainstream to make such films as Taxi Driver, Godfather and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, each standing on its own terms and each imbued with the same sixties spirit that made the European films so special. Hollywood was again the dominant industry.
The posters, however, did not reflect the films artistic merits, and they still focused on head shots of the stars, standard typography and the usual slew of critical blurbs. It was a clear statement. Anti-government or not, Hollywood were releasing the films because the public wanted to watch them. The American Hollywood poster, while no doubt lacking in artistic merit, had proved time and time again to be the best at selling a picture.