The extraordinary German graphic designer Hans Hillmann (1925–2014) should need no introduction to readers of this column: I’ve written about him on a number of occasions and anyone who loves movie poster design should know his name. For a long time, however, it has been hard to find a lot of his work online, certainly not all in one place. For a while I had entertained the idea of trying to collect images of every single movie poster he ever designed and ranking them from best to least-best. But I knew that even if I could gather together his more than 160 posters that I would tie myself in knots trying to put them in any kind of order.
Thankfully author and publisher Jens Müller has done half of the work for me. Müller had first met Hillmann when he curated an exhibition of film posters as a college student. He reached out to the legendary designer, they became friends and kept in touch until Hillmann passed away at the age of 88.
In collaboration with Katharina Sussek and the designer’s widow, Marlies Rosa-Hillmann, Müller has created a browsable online archive of Hillmann’s work which is manna from heaven for any Hillmann fan or any fan of graphic design or illustration for that matter. The archive contains not only the 164 film posters he designed but every piece of Hillmann’s illustration and graphic design that could be found, totalling more than 800 pieces. The website is in German but it is easy to browse through and to sort Hillmann’s work by genre or decade.
And at the same time Müller has published an essential new book called Moving Pictures: The Complete Film Posters of Hans Hillmann. A true labor of love, this beautifully designed book contains reproductions of every single one of Hillmann’s film posters (often side by side with sketches for the poster or supplementary materials for the same film), as well as essays by Müller on Hillmann’s use of illustration, photography and typography, and reproductions of two articles written by Hillmann on movie poster design from 1965 and 1979.
Most of Hillmann’s posters were made between 1954 and 1974 for the distribution company Neue Filmkunst, whose founder Walter Kirchner hired Hillmann right out of art school and gave the designer incredible freedom to promote the international arthouse classics he distributed in whichever way he chose (as Hillmann says in one of his essays, the printing budget was usually the only restriction he faced). Hillmann was also lucky enough to have some of the great masterpieces of world cinema—from Eisenstein to Antonioni—to work on. The results are some of the most innovative and iconic designs ever made for film: bold, striking and, more often than not, eccentric graphic solutions that hinted at the films they were promoting rather than spelling anything out. Hillmann worked with monochrome illustration at first and later with photographs, often photographing images directly from the projected 35mm film. He also worked very notably with three dimensional objects on flat planes: dead leaves strewn on a photograph for The Fire Within, real fingers (his own, apparently) gripping the illustrated neck of a woman for The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz. And his brilliant use of type—often overlooked because of his seemingly straightforward use of sans serif fonts—is central and essential to his work.
I asked Müller if he had a personal favorite poster and without hesitation he selected the brilliant type-centric poster (above) made for the third part of Masaki Kobayashi’s Human Condition trilogy And while I’m not going to try to rank every Hans Hillmann poster from 1 to 164, seeing every poster in one place has allowed me to select my 20 absolute favorite Hillmann movie posters for this piece. The Human Condition is one of them and I present the rest below in chronological order of when they were made so that you can get a sense of how Hillmann’s style and techniques developed over time. Though for much much more elucidation do visit the website and purchase the book.
Many thanks to Jens Müller and Optik Books. Moving Pictures can be purchased here. (Worldwide shipping is free.)