In 1944, as Allied air raids intensified towards the end of World War II, Germany’s centralized state film archive, the National Socialists’ Reichsfilmarchiv, decided to protect their vast collection of film and film publicity materials by hiding them in a salt mine in Grasleben, 125 miles west of Berlin. After the Allied victory, American units entered the mine and recovered the film reels. But much of the paper material was left behind.
In 1986 a treasure trove of German film posters from the first four decades of film history were found, profoundly damaged by a fire, in the mine where they had remained for forty years. Starting in 2017, the posters were recovered, restored, and digitized.
Many of those posters are currently on view at the exhibition Burn Marks – Film Posters from a Salt Mine, which opened in June at the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin (the museum is currently open to the public four days a week with social distancing measures in place) and will run through November 2. The posters, all of German origin, date from a 20-year period from 1916 to 1936 and cover a wide variety of genres, from domestic foster child melodramas to Siberian prison uprisings to Malayan jungle adventures. There are a few well known films, like Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (which has two posters) and Raoul Walsh’s Loves of Carmen, but most are for lesser known films like the The Cohens and Kellys in Atlantic City, part of a once popular late ’20s comedy series following the exploits of Jewish and Irish neighbors on the Lower East Side. Or the German hunting film Horrido!
Though the Reichsfilmarchiv was an important part of the Nazis’ propaganda apparatus, the films that have been preserved through these posters show no signs of being Nazi propaganda. All films and their publicity materials had to be submitted to the German Film Review Office at the time and it seems that some of the paperwork for those submissions has survived, giving the Kinemathek valuable background on the posters and their artists.
The posters themselves are of variable quality: some, like the extraordinary design above for the economic crime thriller The Strike of the Thieves, are stunning; others are rather more ordinary. The catalog copy for Horrido! notes that the film premiered in Berlin in April 1924 and says that “a poster exhibition on film advertisements had just closed in the city a few weeks before. It was shown parallel to the publication of... a handbook for film advertisements documenting how poster art advertising had been raised to an independent graphic form and was increasing the effectiveness of publicity. The film poster of a belling stag by an unknown artist, with the greeting ‘Horrido!’ taken from hunter’s jargon, would not have found its way into this catalog that represented a cornucopia of daring new motifs.”
The posters have also survived in varying degrees of decay, some only in reconstructed pieces. But those I almost find the most beautiful, reminding me of the moldering celluloid celebrated in the films of Bill Morrison.
If you are not in Berlin you can see all 63 restored posters in the Kinemathek’s online gallery. And there is a lot more information on each of the films and their posters in the very fine exhibition catalog. I’ve presented some of my favorites below.
The museum is also running an exhibition Be Caligari! The Virtual Cabinet which includes reconstructions of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s legendary sets and a VR film in which visitors can move virtually through the sets themselves.
Many thanks to Jonas Malte Scheler at the Kinemathek.