Looking at Jan Mlodozeniec’s poster for Alan J. Pakula’s 1971 “Klute” at the National Film Archive of Japan’s exhibition “Polish Posters for Films: 100th Anniversary of Poland-Japan Diplomatic Relations,” it’s a little hard to figure out what the film is about.
There’s no sign of Jane Fonda, the star of the neo-noir, just her name in bold lettering, while Donald Sutherland, who plays the title role, is demoted to the lower half of the poster. Instead of the actors, there’s an illustrated figure of a woman in pink skinny jeans, her upper torso morphing into the outline of a giant telephone. It’s an odd one, but artistically, very compelling.
And that’s what makes many Polish film posters so fascinating — their, at times, outlandish creative license.
This freedom is perhaps ironic, considering the decades of communist control. As a satellite state of the Soviet Union after World War II, Poland imposed restrictions on its artists, instructing them to stick to socialist realism and only create paintings and sculptures that promoted nationalism and party ideals. It was non-academic art, such as propaganda posters, often influenced by Russian counterparts, that found some freedom in metaphor and stylized abstract, minimalist and geometric designs. The concurrent establishment of a state-controlled film industry also led to more, albeit censored, domestic films, and a Polish school of poster design soon developed as the only outlet for artistic expression.
When Stalin’s death in 1953 brought about a more liberal form of communism, film poster designers were well-established enough to exercise full artistic freedom. The fact that they were still commissioned by a state-controlled film and distribution industry only meant that they were also not bound by film-studio demands on their creative output.
As this exhibition illustrates, all this paved the way to some of the world’s most striking and unusual film posters. Few depict actors or scenes, but all — whether for arthouse, drama, noir, comedy or action blockbusters — showcase exceptional use of typography, illustration, color and form.
Many — like Wieslaw Walkuski’s terrifying image of a bust being crushed by a gnarled hand for Andrzej Wajda’s period piece “Danton” (1983) — show influences of surrealism; some appear abstract, such as Jan Lenica’s poster for Roman Polanski’s love-triangle drama “Knife in the Water” (1962) depicting three blue and purple Picasso-like human-faced fish swimming against a black-and-white striped background. Others — such as Maciej Zbikowski’s coral-colored figure fleeing the yellow lightning zaps of Mechagodzilla’s pink eyes for Ishiro Honda’s “Terror of Mechagodzilla” (1975) — utilize bright psychedelic pop art colors and style.
The Japanese film section of the exhibition is quite the highlight of this impressive selection of works. Zygmunt Bobrowski’s poster for Yoshimitsu Banno’s 1971 “Godzilla vs Hedorah” features a ukiyo-e-print-like silhouette of the iconic creature, the shadow of a city skyline delineating its legs and tail, and its body filled with swirls of smoke to reveal two huge angry red eyes. It’s a far cry from Marian Stachurski’s design for Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” (1954), whose line drawings of the warriors depict them with faces akin to tribal masks, or Krzysztof Wrzesniewski’s cute rocket-like shinkansen for Junya Sato’s disaster movie “The Bullet Train” (1975).
When these posters were originally released, they must have sparked the imagination to entice viewers to the box office. Now, their artistic prowess still inspires us to look into films we missed or even revisit classics. Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “Vertigo,” for example, seems all the more alarming in Roman Cieslewicz’s 1963 illustration of an ominous skull sporting a bullseye on its forehead. Who knows? Posters like these may open new doors of perception.
“Polish Posters for Films: 100th Anniversary of Poland-Japan Diplomatic Relations” at the National Film Archive of Japan runs through March 8; ¥250. From Jan. 28, some of the posters displayed will be changed or added. For more information, visit www.nfaj.go.jp.