The oldest item yet to feature on Poster of the Week, this Russian-made poster for the German silent epic, Helena (1924, aka Helen of Troy), is a great example of avant garde design, and features the bold use of a limited range of colours. It’s striking, grabs the attention, and offers lots of detail that draws the viewer’s attention (and a little unwillingly at that).
The image is the key factor in the poster’s design, with Vladimir Gajdarov’s Paris posing regally as if bathed in the rays of the setting sun, his handsome, aquiline features made all the more dramatic by his closed eyes and proud bearing. He’s like a god, his striking countenance offering no doubt that here is the movie’s hero in all his costumed splendour. His tanned, sun-blessed skin tones and wavy brown hair complement each other perfectly, and they blend seamlessly into the burnt orange flare of his tunic, and then on down into his right arm. Only the silver-grey of his breastplate breaks up the effect, but its presence there works, the juxtaposition of the deep reds and the shiny silver-grey proving arresting.
As we pan across the bottom half of the poster, there’s Paris’s helmet, an almost isolated pocket of silver-grey that features strange whorls and curlicues. It’s as if there should be a pattern there, something to occupy the eye as it lingers on the helmet, but the effect isn’t that considered or organised. Each swirl is independent of the others, and each has its own flow and purpose (even if, ultimately, we don’t know what that purpose is). Paris holds his helmet in place with rigid formality, an extension of his pose to the left.
But what’s this? There’s something odd going on in the poster’s centre. There’s something keeping Paris and Helen of Troy apart. At one end, by Paris’s left hand, it looks like it could be a fur, but it’s clearly attached to some kind of material that at its other end is too sharply defined to be from an animal (it also looks as if Paris would impale himself on it if he leans forward too far). This part of the image doesn’t make any sense, even if you accept that it’s the cockade to Paris’s helmet, and especially with the way that Edy Darclea’s Helen is leaning over it in her efforts to be closer to Paris. She looks both uncomfortable and awkward in her positioning. Her gaze, such as it is with her eyes being closed, isn’t even in line with that of Paris’ gaze, and her smile seems both unlikely and inappropriate.
Helen is further let down by the artist’s choice of hat wear. With its truncated top and red circles it’s the Ancient Greek equivalent of a bobble hat, but without the telltale bobble to give it all away. Her skin tone is problematical as well, with its light orange appearance looking too pale against the reds and greys near to her. And what we can see of her tunic reveals a distinct “peasant blouse” effect, an unlikely choice given the period. All this – and let’s forget about the lone ringlet allowed to drape itself over her shoulder – serves to make Helen a less effective component of the overall image than her lover, Paris. Deliberate? We’ll never know, but it’s strange that one side grabs the attention for all the right reasons, and the other side does the same but for all the wrong reasons.
Of course, this being a Russian poster, the text is in Cyrillic, with the main title given prominence near to the top right hand corner. Down in the right hand corner we have the movie’s two sub-titles: Part 1 – The Elopement of Helen, and Part 2 – The Fall of Troy, while crammed into the space below Paris’s right hand is what appears to be details of a limited engagement at one of Moscow’s cinemas. But if you have to spare a thought for anyone connected with this production, then it’s the principal cast of Darclea, Gajdarov, and Albert Steinrück that come off worst: they’re the names squashed between the back of Paris’s head and the edge of the poster. However, the text does make for a nice counterpoint to the main image, and even if it’s been added wherever there’s a space, it’s still effective in terms of the overall image.
This type of avant garde poster was a common sight in Russia during the 1920’s and while there are issues with the depiction of Helen, this is still a poster that draws you in and rewards on several levels. The colours are a pleasing mix of saturated and restrained, and despite Paris’s rigid bearing, contains enough “fun” elements to make it an enjoyable poster to look at, and much, much better than this French version (apologies for the grainy resolution):