Text from


Susan Pack / 1995 / Taschen / ISBN 3-8228-8928-8


The Russian avant-garde film posters of the mid-1920’s to early 1930’s are unlike any film posters ever created. Although the period of artistic freedom in the Soviet Union was brief, these powerful, startling images remain among the most brilliant and imaginative posters ever conceived. The Russian film poster artists experimented with the same innovative cinematic techniques used in the films they were advertising, such as extreme close-ups, unusual angles and dramatic proportions. They montaged disparate elements, such as adding photography to lithography, and juxtaposed the action from one scene with a character from another. They colored human faces with vivid colors, elongated and distorted body shapes, gave animal bodies to humans and turned film credits into an integral part of the design. There were no rules, except to follow one's imagination. 

The 1917 Revolution changed life in Russia politically, socially and artistically. Art became regarded as an important force in shaping the future of the new State. Slogans such as ‘Art into Life’ and ‘Art into Technology’ expressed the popular belief that art had the power to transform lives on every level. It was a time of artistic experimentation, a kind of spontaneous combustion caused by the charged atmosphere and the radical changes in art and life. Diverse art styles, such as Constructivism and Realism, Analytical Art and Proletarian Art, developed simultaneously and, seemingly irreconcilably, together. Bold new directions in art, including suprematism, non-objectivism and cubofuturism, emerged in this fertile period of change.

The pinnacle of the Russian avant-garde film poster occurred between 1925 and 1929. After 1930, artists faced increasing pressure to conform to governmental standards of acceptable art. The rise of Stalinism meant the demise of freedom of expression. To Stalin, all the arts, including film, had the sole function of delivering the official Party line.  

In contrast to most film posters, which concentrate on a film's stars, the star of a Russian avant-garde film poster is the artist's creativity and imagination. Although some of these posters depict famous American film stars, such as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton or Gloria Swanson, their presence is secondary; the poster's value is determined by the quality of its graphic design. Some Russian film posters depicting famous film stars are worth relatively little because the posters are uninteresting artistically. Moreover, some of the most valuable Russian film posters depict obscure films featuring no known stars. As with all works of art, rarity and condition affect a poster's value, however, the rarer a poster, the less condition is a factor. Although the artists knew these posters were ephemeral, meant to be plastered on building walls for only a few weeks, they nevertheless designed them with great style and imagination. 

Many people do not understand how a poster, of which tens of thousands were printed, could be rare or valuable. The issue, however, is not how many posters were printed, but how many survived. We know that 8,000 to 20,000 copies were printed of most posters in this book because the size of the print run is often stated in the bottom border of the poster. Yet today, these posters are extremely rare. The number of known copies for most of the posters in this book can be counted on one hand. This can be attributed to several factors. First, posters were not meant to be saved. They were advertisements, not "works of art". As soon as a film was to be shown in a theater, posters from the previous film were discarded. Also, the posters were printed on poor-quality paper, which could not stand the test of time. Further, because paper was in short supply, a sheet containing unimportant or outdated information was often used again for other purposes. If you look carefully at The Unwilling Twin (p. 27I) and Up on Kholt (p. 275), you will see that each has an entirely different poster printed on its back. 

The first motion pictures to be seen in Russia were the pioneering works of the Lumiere brothers, imported from France in 1894, as a part of many festivities following the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. The first film posters were purely typographical announcements, but profit-motivated film promoters soon added illustrations to their posters to lure more viewers. Within little more than a decade, a thriving film industry was established. However, World War I and the turmoil of the 1917 Revolution made film production and distribution increasingly difficult. Famine, civil war and a foreign blockade prevented the importation of foreign films, raw film, and equipment. The film industry came to a virtual halt. 

In an attempt to aid the ailing film industry, Lenin nationalized it on August 27,1919, placing the industry under the control of Anatoly Lunacharsky, head of the People's Commissariat of Enlightenment. Lunacharsky propagated the production of agitational films (known as 'agit films') in the form of short (one reel) documentaries or rehearsed scenes intended to glorify the 1917 Revolution and promote the advantages of communism. The general belief was that the film industry had been the tool of profit-hungry capitalists before the Revolution; now it was to be a source of education and inspiration for the masses.

In 1921, shortages of film material and equipment were eased by a partial return to private enterprise (New Economic Policy, NEP) in order to avert economic collapse, and in 1922 the government centralized control of the film industry by creating Goskino – the State Cinema Enterprise. In 1926, Goskino was renamed Sovkino. It was the most powerful of the national film organizations, controlling the distribution of all foreign films and using the profits to subsidize domestic film-making. It usually took between one and five years for a foreign film to be released in Soviet theaters, as you will see from the discrepancy between the original release date of a foreign film and the poster date. One reason was that the Soviet censors often made changes to foreign films. The Russian film titles were rarely simple translations; the American film Dollar Down became Bride of the Sun (p. 238), Thee Live Ghosts became In the London Twilight (p.110, 111) and Beasts of Paradise became Cut off from the World (pp.44,45)· Also, film dialogue was often changed to reflect a more politically correct viewpoint. Because the films were silent, the censors could simply alter the titles which substituted for spoken dialogue. Suddenly, a suicide could become a murder or, as in the drastic case of Dr. Mabuse (pp. 246, 247) a street fight could become a workers' revolt against capitalist oppression. As a result, film summaries from different sources can differ widely, depending on which version the source viewed. 

It is interesting to discover which American actors became big stars in the Soviet Union. From the number of Russian film posters featuring Richard Talmadge, one would think that he was the greatest star of all. The reason for Talmadge's dominant presence was largely a result of the marketing strategies of the distributors. Films made by independent American producers like Richard Talmadge, Charles Ray and Monty Banks, which played only in marginal theaters in the United States (due to the tight control of major theater chains by the large producers), enjoyed disproportionate success in the Soviet Union, especially since they were also quite shallow standard fare guaranteed to have no political message. As a result, some films that were barely noticed in their home country occasioned the creation of superior Russian posters, often at odds with their cinematic value. 

Like everything else in the Soviet system, poster production was centralized and state-controlled. Reklam Film was the Sovidno department which oversaw the production of all film posters. Sovidno operated four movie studios and twenty-two different production units, many of which had their own film poster departments. Some of the production units, especially those in the outlying republics like Uzbekistan and Georgia, had their own poster designers or employed their set designers to create posters. However, all posters had to be approved by Reklam Film. 

Yakov Rukievsky (whose posters you will see in this book) was appointed to head Reklam Film. He hired a group of exceptionally talented and imaginative young poster artists, many of whom were recent graduates of VKHUTEMAS, the Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops. This group of creative young talent included Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg, Nikolai Prusakov, Grigori Borisov, Mikhail Dlugach, Alexander Naumov, Leonid Voronov, and Iosif Gerasimovich. 

From the very beginning, these young Soviet poster artists threw themselves into their work with the same exuberant verve with which the young Soviet directors approached their film assignments. Boldly, they evolved their own paths, synthesizing the prevalent art trends of their day into a style peculiarly their own, vibrant and profound, combining the depth of their Russian heritage with their new-found Soviet fervor. They refused to succumb to the easy glamour of Hollywood-style poster making in which almost all films were advertised by showing an embrace between the hero and the heroine. Instead they searched for innovative solutions which resulted in unique montages of images designed to capture the attention and fire the imagination: bold lines, intersecting planes, disembodied heads floating in space, split images, compositions and collages, photomontage, eccentric colors, superimpositions, unusual background patterns and more. 

One of the great innovations in Soviet film-making during this period was the concept of montage. The French word "montage" simply means editing. However, Soviet director Lev Kuleshov (The Happy Canary, pp. I46, I47, By the Law, p. 222, The Death Ray, pp. 164·, 165) showed that pieces of film could be cut and edited in such a way as to create a meaning not present in any of the frames alone. Director Dziga Vertov pioneered the theory of documentary montage. His first feature-length film, Kino-Glaz (Film Eye, p. 34). made in 1924 had no actors, sets or scripts. Vertov filmed ordinary people and unrehearsed events (often using hidden cameras), then manipulated the footage in such an extraordinary way (using multiple exposures, foreshortening, reverse motion, high-speed photography, microcinematography etc.) that the final film bore little resemblance to the original footage. The heroes of Vertov's films were not the actors but the film-making machinery and techniques. At the end of his landmark film The Man with the Movie Camera, 1928 (pp. 193-195), the true star of the film, the camera, gets off its tripod and takes a bow. 

The mid-to late-1920’s were a period of extremely successful film-making in the USSR. A number of Soviet film-makers and their films gained international fame: Sergei Eisenstein for his Battleship Potemkin (pp. 166-171) and October (pp. 103-107), Dziga Vertov for Kino-Glaz and One Sixth of the World (pp. 202, 203), Alexander Dovzhenko for The Earth (p. 257) and Arsenal (pp. 60, 61), Vsevolod Pudovidn for Mother (pp. 62, 63) and Storm over Asia (The Heir of Genghis Khan, p. 278) and Friedrich Ermler for Katka, the Paper Reinette (p. 285) and Fragment of an Empire (pp. I42-I45). All these films were powerful portraits of the Revolution or of the problems facing the young republic. However, the posters advertising these films were virtually unknown outside the USSR. 

The best-known and most celebrated of the early Soviet films was Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925). Central to the film was the use of montage, but Eisenstein's theories differed from Vertov's. Eisenstein believed in the principle of montage of attractions, meaning that every moment the spectator spends in the theater should be filled with the maximum shock and intensity. In discovering new ways to achieve Eisenstein's vision, his cameraman, Edouard Tisse, literally turned the traditional world of film-making upside down. To film the famous slaughter on the Odessa steps, Tisse used several cameras simultaneously. He strapped a hand-held camera to the waist of a circus-trained assistant, then instructed him to run, jump and fall down the steps. Traditional film-making techniques could not have achieved such a sense of fear, panic and horror. 

The financially successful Russian films were not the great epics like Battleship Potemkin. In fact, Commissar Lunacharsky recounted that when he entered the theater for the first run of Potemkin, he found the theater half-empty. The most successful Russian films were American-style comedies like Miss Mend (pp. 80-83), The Three Millions Trial (pp.190-191) and The Love Triangle (pp. 188, 189)). Although viewed with contempt by the Soviet government, American comedies, adventure films, westerns and serials were tolerated because of their popularity with the public. It was the huge profits from foreign films that financed Soviet film production. Names like Chaplin, Fairbanks, Pickford and Lloyd were far more familiar to Soviet audiences than the greatest Soviet cinema pioneers. 

Any film made in the Soviet Union had to appease seemingly irreconcilable interests. The government wanted films to educate the audience about Communist ideals, the directors wanted to pursue their artistic visions, the audience wanted entertainment and the film industry wanted a profit so that it could make more films. In 1923, only twelve Soviet films were released and in the next year, forty-one. However, by 1924 there were approximately 2,700 movie theaters in the Soviet Union. Within the next three years, the total reached 7500 movie theaters. To fill the ever-growing need for new films, newsreel production increased dramatically. Every significant event was filmed. As the British film historian Paul Rotha noted in The Film till Now (1930): “There is practically no subject, whether scientific, geographical, ethnological, industrial, military, naval, aeronautical or medical which has not been approached by Soviet directors” (p. 173). What is fascinating is that the poster artists gave as much time and attention to posters for these documentaries, such as The Pencil (p. 12), as they gave to the posters for feature productions. 

The most famous Soviet poster artists were Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg. One could not walk down the streets of Moscow in the late 1920’s without seeing film posters bearing the ubiquitous signature “2 Stenberg 2.” As collaborators, the two brothers created about 300 film posters. In “A conversation with Vladimir Stenberg”, (Art Journal, Fall 1981, p. 229) Vladimir Stenberg explained to Alma Law that their first film poster, The Eyes of Love, had only the signature ‘Sten’ because the two brothers did not know if they would make any more film posters. They signed their second poster ‘Stenberg’ and from then on they always used ‘2 Stenberg 2’. Vladimir Stenberg stated: “We always worked together, beginning in 1907. We did everything together. It was this way from childhood... We ate alike and followed the same work routine. If... I caught a cold, he caught a cold too... When my brother and I were working together, we even made a test. What color should we paint the background? We would do it like this: he would write a note and I would write one. I had no idea what he had written and he didn’t know what I had written. So we would write these notes and then look, and they coincided! You think maybe one was giving in to the other? No... there was no bargaining, nothing”. Georgii Stenberg died in a car accident in 1933. The posters that Vladimir designed after Georgii’s death were never able to match the brilliance of their work as a team. 

The Stenberg brothers had extensive knowledge of lithographic technique. Due to the inability of printing facilities to ensure quality duplication of photography or film stills for use in the posters, the Stenbergs devised a way to simulate photographic likenesses. One often has to look very carefully at their posters to determine whether an image is hand-drawn or photographic. Even though the Stenbergs may have preferred their own method of creating photo-like images, they were also very talented at photomontage. It is hard to imagine a more effective use of photomontage than their poster for The Eleventh, in which the Communist achievements of a decade are reflected in a pair of glasses (pp. 124, 125). 

Continually they discovered new ways to capture the dynamics of film on paper. In order to convey the drama of the boxing ring, they show a boxer fighting upside down in The Pounded Cutlet (pp. 226, 227), draw concentric circles that simulate the reverberations of a blow to the head in The Boxer’s Bride (p. 224), and use such sharp angles and contrasting proportions in The Punch (p. 223) that the viewer feels disoriented, almost as if he had been punched. As Vladimir Stenberg stated during his conversation with Alma Law, “When we made posters for the movies, everything was in motion because in films, everything moves. Other artists worked in the center, they put something there and around it was an empty margin. But with us, everything seems to be going somewhere” (pp. 229, 230). The brothers particularly liked experimenting with unusual color combinations. Their choice of color is thought-provoking when one considers that they were advertising black and white films. 

The Stenberg brothers often created two different posters for the same film. Their two posters for The Three Millions Trial (pp. I90,191) could not be more different in color and composition, yet both are very effective. The horizontal version (p. I90), with its image broken up into many parts, creates the impression of watching a film strip, while the close-up of the woman’s face looming over the small cartoon images in the vertical poster (p. I9I) catapults the viewer into the center of the action. Both of the Stenbergs’ posters for the film Moulin Rouge feature a woman's face. One poster (p. 160) is classically simple, all we see is the woman's veiled face in darkness; the other (p. 161) places the viewer into the midst of Paris' night life with a seductive woman, fancy night club and neon lights. The typography parallels the design: beautifully simple in the first poster, and in the second poster the mixture of letters in different typefaces and sizes creates the impression of walking down a Paris street and being confronted by the flashing lights of a nightclub's sign. At a time when people were accustomed to seeing a traditional white background on posters, the dark blue/black background of these two Moulin Rouge posters must have been particularly striking. 

Some of the most imaginative and unusual film posters were created by Nikolai Prusakov. In his brilliant poster for The Big Sorrow of a Small Woman (p. I48, 149), Prusakov montages the face of a woman and the hat of an invisible man over an imposing city scene. The man and woman are careening happily in space, seated in a car missing most of its parts. Their car has eyes inside its headlights, but it still runs over the title of the film, slightly scattering the typography. In The Glass Eye (pp. 36, 37) Prusakov wreaks havoc on the proportions of the couple. The man and woman seem to be dancing cheek to cheek until one notices that the truncated man is actually dangling in mid-air, his legs not long enough to reach the lap of his seated companion. The juxtaposition of their bodies bears an amusing resemblance to a ventriloquist holding a dummy. The photographer in the poster does not just take a picture; his body has become a camera. 

The integration of photography into the lithographic design, or photomontage, is one of the hallmarks of Russian avant-garde posters. One of the wittiest examples of photomontage is a poster Prusakov designed with Grigori Borisov, entitled Khaz-Push (p. 48). The man racing on his bicycle is saying "I am rushing to see the film Khaz-Push," while scenes from the film are already being shown on his body and in the spokes of his bicycle's wheels. 

Prusakov created some of his zaniest posters with Borisov. The Unwilling Twin (p. 271) is similar to the psychedelic San Francisco 'rock' posters of the 1960’s. The artists create an incredible electricity between the seated twins, graphically portrayed by simultaneously breaking up and overlapping the lines that form their bodies. The result is that one feels their indivisible closeness as well as their inevitable split. Law and Duty/Amok (pp. 216, 217) may seem at first to be a poster gone amok, but Prusakov and Borisov have created an effective balance between the swirling lines, extravagant colors and black-and-white inset photography. Borisov also collaborated with another artist, Pyotr Zhukov, to create spectacular posters. In The Living Corpse (pp. 140, 141) Borisov and Zhukov use the pattern formed by the repetition of the film title to weave the fabric of this man's life, from his suit to the courtroom scene (pictured in the film still) in which he appears. The artists create a haunting image of a 'corpse' whose only living', or non-typographical, parts are his head and hand. His hand points accusingly at the viewer, emerging from the typography with three-dimensional force. In The Doll with Millions (pp. 120, 121), Borisov and Zhukov mesmerize the viewer with overlapping designs that change their pattern wherever they come in contact with other shapes. Trying to determine which designs are part of which people is similar to solving a jigsaw puzzle. 

Like Prusakov and Borisov, Alexander Naumov experimented with breaking down the poster's surface into grids or vertical lines in order to create a three-dimensional effect. He had already captured the glamorous, hypnotic, larger-than-life quality of the silver screen in such posters as Bella Donna (pp. 94, 95) and The Stolen Bride (p. 172) by the time he died in a drowning accident at the age of 20. 

Although Alexander Rodchenko designed comparatively few film posters, this artist and photographer made an important contribution with his unique design sense and innovative use of photomontage. In Battleship Potemkin (pp. 166-171), Rodchenko lets the viewer spy on the action through a pair of binoculars that form an elegant Constructivist design. Rodchenko's use of lime green and pink for a battleship poster is unusual, as is his depiction of two events, one in each binocular lens, which do not occur simultaneously in the film. 

An important artist who preferred to concentrate on one central image was Anatoly Belsky. He strived for maximum emotional impact. It is hard to forget the terror on the face of the individual in The Gadfly (p. 233) or The Private Life of Peter Vinograd (p. 159). Belsky's depiction of a young boy smoking a pipe in The Communard's Pipe (p. 122, 123) is not only attention-grabbing, it is also a very effective use of photomontage, with various scenes from the film forming the pipe's smoke. 

The most prolific of the film-poster artists was Mikhail Dlugach, who designed over five hundred posters during his career. His split image of the judge and the prisoner in Judge Reitan (p. 200) simultaneously portrays the two men as 'two sides of the same coin' and 'different as night and day'. Dlugach's excellent color sense is particularly evident in his poster for Cement (pp. 118, 119). For many who have so far seen this poster reproduced only in black and white, the rich red color of the man's face is as unexpected as it is powerful. 

Some truly great posters of this period were created by artists whose names we do not know. In the anonymous poster for Enthusiasm (pp. 260, 261 ) the typography does not only add to the design, it becomes the design. Enthusiasm was Dziga Vertov's first film with sound. He told the story of the coal miners of the Don Basin accompanied by the natural sounds of the mines, such as the clashing hammers and train whistles. The poster beautifully evokes these reverberating sounds with its typography. The name of the film emanates outward like a sound wave, in ever-increasing size. 

Like the revolutionary films they advertised, the film posters of this period developed into a new form of art. The poster artists used elements of graphic design in radical new ways. They experimented with color, perspective and proportion, juxtaposing images in startling ways, bearing no relation to physical reality. Even film credits take on a new life. In both Niniche (p. 279) and The Man with the Movie Camera (pp. I93-195), the Stenbergs do not place the film credits unobtrusively on the side, but instead, make them an integral part of the design, boldly encircling the main image. 

The posters became a kind of 'moving picture'. In Smolyakovsky's The Conveyor of Death (p. 96) one can almost feel the ra-ta-tat-tat of the machine gun. In Dlugach's poster for The Electric Chair (p. 57), the zig-zag line cutting through the character's neck could not be more "electric", particularly when juxtaposed with the voltage meter and the woman's shocked expression. The spiraling woman in the Stenbergs' The Man with the Movie Camera is so effective, the viewer feels dizzy. 

The quality of the posters is remarkable in view of the fact that the artists often had to rush to meet nearly impossible deadlines. Both Vladimir Stenberg and Mikhail Dlugach recalled that it was not unusual for them to see a film at three o'clock in the afternoon and be required to present the completed poster by ten o'clock the next morning. Further, the equipment for printing the posters was falling apart and the technology was primitive. The only printing presses available pre-dated the 1917 Revolution. Vladimir Stenberg recalled that some of the presses were so shaky that practically everything was held together by string. 

Many times the artists had to create the posters without ever having seen the film. Especially with foreign films, the artists often had to work from only a brief summary of the film and publicity shots or a press kit from Hollywood. When one considers that the poster artists assumed their work would be torn down and thrown away after a few weeks, it is astonishing that they continued to strive to maintain such a high standard. Clearly, these innovative flights of the imagination do not deserve to be consigned to oblivion. 

In 1932, eight years after Lenin's death, Stalin decreed that the only officially sanctioned type of art would be 'Socialist Realism'. Both the subject and the artistic method were required to depict a realistic (we might call it an idealistic) portrayal of Soviet life consistent with Communist values. Stalin's decree marked the end of the period of avant-garde experimentation represented by the posters in this book. He may have closed the window of creativity, but not before it had illuminated history with some of the most brilliant posters ever created. The imagination, wit and creativity exhibited in these film posters have yet to be rivaled anywhere in the world. 

As you examine the film posters in this book, try to imagine Moscow or Leningrad in the 1920’s, the streets filled with people attending to their daily affairs. Imagine workers leaving their jobs at the end of the day, running to catch their streetcars. They would glance up and be confronted by these startling posters looming overhead. For a few brief moments they would escape their everyday routine, lured into the exciting world of the cinema. It is my hope that as you look at these film posters today, you, too, will be fascinated by their imagination and power.

 Return to Poster Boys

Return to Greatest Hits

Return to Home Page