The USA have Saul Bass; Germany has Hans Hillmann. His iconic designs for Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Luc Godard did away with genre conventions and can now be found in the world’s most prestigious museums (think MOMA in NYC).
Born in 1925, Hillmann came of age during a difficult time in European history. During World War II, he was a Wehrmacht soldier on the Eastern front, then a prisoner of war, and then an escapee.
In 1948 he enrolled at the State School for Crafts and Art in Kassel, where his art career finally started. Under the tutelage of graphic design legend Hans Leistikow, Hillmann quickly found success as an illustrator and designer. (Following in his mentor’s footsteps, Hillmann would too later become a professor in Kassel.)
For 20 years — from 1955 to 1975 — Hillman collaborated with the distribution company Neue Filmkunst. He was afforded significant creative freedom by his bosses and had relatively little contact with filmmakers, preferring to base his designs on the films themselves. Hillmann ended up creating over 150 posters, with acclaimed directors admiring his artistry. Jean-Luc Godard even decorated an apartment in Two or Three Things I Know About Her with Hillmann’s art.
Hillmann’s poster for Luis Buñuel’s The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955)
Movie posters are often maximalist by nature, packing in as much information as possible. Hillmann took the opposite approach: enigmatic and sparse in both color and content, with a preference for stark, minimalist images in black-and-white.
(L: Storm over Asia; R: Battleship Potemkin)
His posters have a detached air about them: it’s often unclear what exactly is being promoted and represented. Whenever he used human figures and faces, he took pains to obscure them — whether via ripped-up photographs (Muriel) or a scattering of dead leaves (The Fire Within). Perhaps, like the portrait of Dorian Gray, these are broken psyches made flesh.
This tendency reaches its peak in the poster for Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless: no face, just an emptiness between a suit and a hat. Hillman’s interpretation of another iconic New Wave film, Pickpocket, reverses the film’s typical imagery: the hand reaches out of a pocket instead of into it. The end result is both subtly sexual and spiritual, suggesting a desire for escape.
Outside of his poster output, Hillman was the artistic director of several magazines and newspapers and a member of the art advisory board of the Deutsche Post. He also illustrated book covers for German editions of John Updike and Ernest Hemingway. In the end, Hillmann is best described in his own words:
“When I am asked to speak about myself, as a graphic designer, I am sometimes tempted to reduce everything to two words borrowed from the English language: ‘just work’.”