You haven’t seen movie posters until you’ve seen Polish movie posters. These strange, abstract, and undisputed works of art push the limits of how you can portray a film in poster form. Simply put, they’re wild.
That’s because in mid-20th Century Poland, posters became the canvas for artistic expression. The artists had complete creative carte blanche, and the result was a golden age of poster design — referred to as the Polish School of Posters — during the 1950s and 60s. The movement’s influence, however, continued well until the end of the 1980s.
Here are 10 of our favorite pieces (of which there are many), whose remarkable design work often trumped the actual posters from the film studios.
Artist: Waldemar Swierzy, 1981
Sharing the original Hollywood poster’s hellish red color palette and focus on the face of Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), Swierzy’s design is a study in elevating a borrowed concept. Apocalypse Now is transformed here from a place into a person: The touch of red in Kurtz’s pupils evokes his demon-like malevolence. The scratch marks and lines across his face make him seem like an otherworldly creature our own eyes can’t adjust to. With those minor design touches, the poster becomes a haunting, disturbing image that captures the movie’s dark descent into madness so well that you almost don’t want to frame it and hang it on your wall.
Artist: Maciej Kalkus, 1988
A wonderful juxtaposition: An innocent-looking snake as an anything-but-innocent (or subtle) metaphor. Never in a million years would you imagine a Fatal Attraction poster looking like this, but it amazingly sums up the film with the simplicity of an Ouroboros design. Consider how the apple invokes the forbidden fruit, in this case, symbolizing how Dan (Michael Douglas) reaches for the representation of his his affair with Alex (Glenn Close). Simultaneously, we have the snake’s head seizing the fruit, and you don’t need to be a Freudian to figure out what that symbolizes. But more than sexual innuendo, there’s also plot foreshadowing: the hand reaching for the apple will most likely get bitten by the snake holding it, which recalls Alex’s violent stalking of Dan. Ultimately, this poster demonstrates the dizzying possibilities of meaning that many Polish posters conveyed without ever being literal.
The Godfather: Part II
Artist: Andrzej Klimowski, 1976
At first this seems too busy — even messy. There’s no strong focal point, the fogged-up head is maybe too ghostly, and the depths and layers are hard to make out (is the person coming out of the mirror, or going into it?). But with a little work — which good art often encourages — it opens up. The poster becomes a neat, if unexpected, Through the Looking Glass metaphor for Francis Ford Coppola’s famous sequel. The extreme blackness of the poster’s palette evokes the film’s tone; the mirror stands in for the series’ dark mirror image of the American Dream; and the man’s foggy disappearance captures Al Pacino’s character disappearing as a Regular Joe and becoming a Godfather. This poster is a great example of how making an audience work for meaning can yield great rewards.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Artist: Miroslaw Lakomski, 1981
A relatively straightforward image of everyone’s favorite archaeologist, until you consider the colors: stark blue background juxtaposed with the unconventional palette (black shadows, along with hues of red and yellow) used to color Indy. It should be distracting, yet it barely registers because of the arrows going toward and away from Harrison Ford’s face, which powerfully draw the eye. They demonstrate a wonderful, simple design technique to evoke meaning — in this case, how Raiders of the Lost Ark finds Indiana Jones propelled in every direction as he tries to navigate a neverending list of serial action sequences. Lakomski uses arrows — which convey movement — because Indiana Jones is always moving.
The Return of the Jedi
Artist: Witold Dybowski, 1984
A lot happens in Return of the Jedi, but its biggest moment really is the redemption and unmasking of Darth Vader. It’s almost spoiler-ish how much this poster broadcasts with a heck of an image: Vader’s helmet literally (and explosively) coming off, yet revealing nothing because the poster has to preserve a little bit of mystery. It’s both a great design and an amazing image. But, like other Polish posters, it conveys more by going around, not straight. It also nicely conveys a kind of identity crisis, a shattering of the image of Darth Vader we thought we knew, in favor of the Anakin inside, who has a change of heart and saves his son from death.
Artist: Edward Lutczyn, 1978
Anyone who’s seen Rocky knows that the film is just as much about a boxer as it is a love story. This Polish design enviably captures both themes with a single stroke of brilliant design: boxing gloves doubling as a big, red heart.
Artist: Waldemar Swierzy, 1957
The moment you see Swierzy’s rendering of wide-eyed Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) as Medusa-like, you think, “That’s perfect.” You especially have to love the inventive choice to turn the hair falling off her head into film strips, evoking not only how much Desmond sees herself as one with movies, but how her fading celluloid stardom has shed away over the years, reducing her to a has-been.
Artist: Roman Cieslewicz, 1963
Saul Bass certainly wouldn’t have done it this way. This is a great example of the Polish School’s willingness to completely distance itself from traditional advertising images — or the images in the movie itself. And yet, Vertigo is still right here. The stark, multi-colored circles on the skull’s forehead (right where the brain hides) evoke both James Stewart’s fear of heights in the film, but also his twisted obsession with recreating his dead ex-girlfriend in the persona of his new one. And while the skull may seem almost heavy-metal like, it serves as a very (very) literal representation of how Vertigo is really a movie about death. Given Alfred Hitchcock’s famous morbidity, you can imagine he would have loved this poster.
Artist: Mieczyslaw Wasilewski, 1985
What better way to represent a movie about being able to destroy the world with the push of a button than by showing a giant finger pushing the world as a button. You might think the bright yellow background seems too upbeat for such a doom-and-gloom scenario, but you know what? It dead-on recalls the kind of fun, popcorn feel of the actual movie: a non-reassuring scenario matched by a sunny reassurance that everything will turn out okay.
Artist: Andrzej Pagowski, 1990
Okay, so maybe this poster isn’t a totally accurate representation of the movie. The captivating image of a woman climbing a man whose head has been turned into a staircase suggests the movie is about a working woman having to overcome men to achieve success. In reality, the obstacle that Tess (Melanie Griffith) faces is actually another woman. Still, the reason we love this poster is that the designer leverages Working Girl for a larger commentary: the reality of what many working women do contend with. Pagowski’s wonderful image captures the corporate ladder (well, staircase) constructed by men that women have to climb to get anywhere. It’s a striking image, drawn from a lighthearted movie, to make a bigger statement.