When I first saw this artwork for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis used on the Masters of Cinema 2010 Blu-ray packaging, I was convinced that it was contemporary artwork commissioned especially for that release. As familiar as I was with Heinz Schulz-Neudamm’s famous poster for the film (aka the most sought after and most expensive movie poster of all time), for some reason I had not seen this before. But when I discovered that this poster was not only an original 1927 French release poster but also that it is a four-sheet poster that stands 94 inches tall and 126 inches wide, my mind was blown. (Click on the image to see it in all its glory). Apparently an original exists in the Art Library of the Berlin State Museum (the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) but I would assume no copy has ever come up for auction. As far as I’m concerned this poster should be on display in the Louvre.
The signature of the artist, Boris Bilinsky, is very prominent in the top right corner of the poster, so I have been searching for other work by him ever since. There is a very comprehensive article on Bilinsky’s work for Metropolis (as part of the Metropolis Film Archive of the University of Wollongong in Australia) compiled by Michael Organ with the help of Bilinsky’s grandson René Clémenti-Bilinsky. Boris Konstantinovitch Bilinsky (1900-1948) was a Russian officer’s son who emigrated to Germany in 1920 where he worked in theater before traveling to Paris in 1923 and studying painting under fellow Russian emigré Léon Bakst. After meeting the actor Ivan Mosjoukine he started to work in the cinema as a set and costume designer and poster artist. In 1924 he designed the extravagant costumes for Jean Epstein’s Le Lion des Mogols which made his name. His poster for that film also won the gold medal at the 1925 Paris International Exhibition of Decorative Arts.
In 1927, by then a prolific cinema poster artist, Bilinsky was commissioned by the French distribution company L’Alliance Cinématographique Européenne (ACE) to design posters and publicity material for the French release of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. This was a major commission which resulted in no less than four posters, including this stunning two-sheet (63 x 94 inches), markedly different from the intricate architectural design for the four-sheet.
Another 4-sheet is believed to be lost (though Organ’s site has a tantalizing street photograph where it can be glimpsed) but it seems to have been similar to Bilinsky’s surviving one-sheet for the film, below.
Tracking down other work by Bilinsky however was not easy; very little of it exists on the web or in print. But with the help of René Clémenti-Bilinsky and Jacques Ayroles of the Cinematheque Française I have been privileged with access to images of the more than 20 posters held in the Cinematheque’s collection. According to his grandson, it is impossible to know how many posters Bilinsky designed during his 25-year career. In 1928 he was recognized in the magazine l’Affiche de cinéma as “ one of the best” and in 1931 was called “the most famous poster designer for cinema” by Lucie Derain in Arts et Métiers Graphiques. In May 1928 he founded his own film advertising company under the name Alboris although in the 1930s he concentrated his own work more on set and costume design for Russian opera and ballet. With the outbreak of war in 1939 Bilinsky moved to Rome with his Italian wife where he worked for an Italian film company and died far too young at the age of 47.
In the course of his research of his grandfather, René Clémenti-Bilinsky told me that he discovers a new poster once a year on average and that he now knows of more than 50 in existence. Almost all of the Cinematheque’s posters come from the years 1925-6 and prior to Metropolis. The earliest film, the 1919 Russian film Father Sergius, may have been released some years later in France. There are six posters for films by Jean Epstein, as well as posters for films from three other of the greatest French directors of the 1920s: Jacques Feyder, Marcel L’Herbier and René Clair. Though most of the posters are for French films there are also ACE commissions for German and Russian films.
My favorites among these designs are the 4-panel and double-grande posters (he seemed to work especially well in wide screen) and those that have the most intricate structural underpinnings, like the receding black-and-white floor patterns for La Petite Telephoniste and the grande for L’Herbier’s Feu Mathias Pascal.
All posters (with the exception of the Metropolis designs) courtesy of the Cinémathèque Française, reproduced with permission. Many, many thanks to Jacques Ayroles, Xavier Jamet and René Clémenti-Bilinsky.