How Czechoslovakia created some of the most interesting film art.
In order to reach the status of true film buff, it seems as if there are a few required qualifications. Have you read one of the books from the “Directors on Directors” series? Do you watch non-American films? Is there one Best Picture snub that could inspire a manifesto? Have you seen at least one Quentin Tarantino movie? But most pressing is probably the film posters you choose to adorn your walls, showing those who visit how complex and diverse you and your tastes are. To reach the even higher echelon of cinephilia, you had better make sure that at least one poster is the artistic foreign version of an American movie.
For me, my movie snob calling card is the Czechoslovakian Ghostbusters poster that simultaneously graces and overwhelms my room. It is at once insufferable and endlessly entertaining; the image has almost nothing to do with the film aside from the list of actors’ names, centering on a peculiar colorful and gigantic face with an old woman’s mouth amid city skyscrapers. If you are looking for odd movie posters of your own, this now separated country of Eastern Europe is the perfect place to start.
Under communist rule from 1948 to 1990, Czechoslovakia’s isolated nature allowed for these abstract interpretations of even the most rote Hollywood films. While the industry professionals have released some stellar art themselves over the years, studios often fall back on the idea of star power, the likely explanation for so many stale compositions of a white man and woman popular with romantic comedies and Nicholas Sparks films. In Czechoslovakia, there was no competition between rival studios with only the Central Film Distributors in charge of releases. Cheaper than shipping and receiving the intended American marketing material, local artists were tasked with creating pieces for the film instead. A small benefit of the non-capitalist society: the artists were not incentivized to make commercially viable art, but rather whatever they chose to make.
The illustrators and designers obviously did not have absolute power. All artwork had to be submitted to a board for approval before being used, deciding not only what looked best but also what was not politically inciting. Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Czechoslovakian art posters became surreal and dynamic, creating some of the best designs yet. The artists did all this without even seeing the film sometimes, only going off of press material, a synopsis, or even just the title. The funky Ghostbusters poster makes more sense if you imagine the person who made it has never seen the incredibly original film. Art designer Petr Poš did not know about the now-iconic ‘no’ symbol over a ghost or the Marshmallow Man or the earworm of a theme song, but he created something equally haunting and hilarious.
As the Eastern Bloc fell apart in the late 80s and the country later divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Western companies began to exhibit more control over a movie’s release in these countries. Gone were the unique takes on popular films, in were the ubiquitous posters with the title translated. However, their work is not lost to the wind. The foreign perspectives on classic film have aged well now that the contemporary generation shares as many differences with classic Hollywood as the Eastern world shared with the Western.
12 Angry Men, 1957
Apocalypse Now, 1979
The Big Sleep, 1946
The Birds, 1963
Bonnie and Clyde, 1967
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969
Easy Rider, 1969
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 1967
Hello, Dolly! 1969
Midnight Cowboy, 1969
Planet of the Apes, 1968
Purple Rose of Cairo, 1985
Raging Bull, 1980
Rear Window, 1954
Rebel Without a Cause, 1955
Three Days of the Condor, 1975