On 9 March 2022, two leading institutions in the cultural scene of the Canton of Vaud embarked on a new chapter in their long history of collaboration: the Non-Film Department of the Cinémathèque suisse welcomed a group of first-year students from the ECAL Master Type Design program to the Research and Archiving Center in Penthaz (VD), giving them access to one of the most extensive and diverse collections of film posters in the world. The students were asked by their professor, Alice Savoie, to select one poster each and redesign the letters as digital fonts, conveying the film’s title, the names of the cast and crew, and other ‘para-filmic’ information (taglines, release dates, etc.). In addition, they had to produce a specimen poster (without images) showcasing their font.
From a store of 500,000 posters, priority was given to those which are historically attached to the promotion of Swiss or Swiss-related cinema, according to the Helvetica criterion that guides the overall policy of acquisition, preservation, and dissemination practices of the Swiss National Film Archive. The students had a unique opportunity to discover some of the rarest treasures of the Cinémathèque’s collection, documenting early to mid-twentieth century Swiss film production. The visually and graphically exciting posters of such movies as Der goldene Gletscher (also known as Die Herrgottsgrenadiere, directed by Anton Kutter and released in 1932), Wachtmeister Studer (Leopold Lindtberg, 1939), Dilemma (Edmund Heuberger, 1940), Annelie vom Berghof (Franz Schnyder, 1958), or even Une chasse aux chamois dans les Alpes fribourgeoises (Pierre Lebrun, 1926), are all emblematic of early fiction and documentary film production in Switzerland.
As a distinct object, a film poster embodies an interesting paradox: it is simultaneously a promotional item and a work of art in its own right. Their significance as historical documents are enormous. Posters not only provide information on the evolution of film production and (audio)visual entertainment throughout the decades; they also demonstrate the ways in which cinema was perceived at different periods in history by incorporating in their aesthetical, technical, and rhetorical structure the strategies deemed most efficient in ‘promoting’ movies in the public and social spheres. It is therefore no surprise that the preservation, restoration, and dissemination of film posters constitutes an integral part of the Cinémathèque suisse’s overall mission as a heritage institution.
Thanks to the expertise of the ECAL students and professors, the importance of typography and lettering, an often-ignored aspect in the reading and, more broadly speaking, the public reception of posters – objects that are after all traditionally classified as solely ‘iconographic’ by film heritage institutions around the world – was highlighted. One of the starting points for the project was the selection of posters which did not use commercially available typefaces, thus constituting an original and unique creation. Beyond its historical and artistic value, this source material allowed students a certain amount of freedom in the interpretation of forms and shapes. At the same time, they faced a specific challenge: their own, newly created digital fonts had to respect and convey the ‘spontaneous’ feel of the original lettering that inspired them. The task was twice as difficult given that the students had to choose only a few letters (only one or two words) from a given poster and had to imagine the rest of the alphabet by themselves, since their source material was ‘missing’ some or all the lowercase and uppercase letters, punctuation marks, numbers, and so on.
The final results were nothing short of excellent, prompting the MATD professors to finalise and distribute the fonts through ECAL Typefaces, making them available to the public, giving visibility to their work, and redistributing part of the revenue generated. The first font, designed by János Hunor Vári and inspired by the poster for Le Criminel inconnu (Jean Brocher, 1935), is now available on ECAL Typefaces.
Despite its relatively compact dimensions (45.5 × 67 cm, portrait format), this poster possesses important historical value. Firstly, it documents the promotion of a Swiss-French feature film, a rare achievement in the early talkies era and enough to deserve a mention on the poster – the expression ‘UN FILM SUISSE’, in capital letters, is visible on its lower right side. Secondly, it provides historical evidence that posters were, at the time, created – and even published by important printing companies – for small, ‘independent’ film productions. Indeed, Jean Brocher’s movies were more often than not screened with no involvement from the traditional distribution networks of the early Swiss film industry, which explains the complete absence of logos on the poster. Finally, it offers an example of a film poster printed by ATAR (a contraction of ‘Ateliers Artistiques’), a large Geneva-based printing company founded in 1896 and recognised throughout Switzerland as a specialist in artistic posters.
In a career spanning over four decades, Geneva-born writer and director Jean Brocher made fourteen feature and medium-length films. His career in cinema was launched as early as 1921 when, backed by the philanthropic association SGUP (Société Genevoise d’Utilité Publique), he began organising film screenings around the Geneva countryside. Actively committed to promoting cinema as an art in its own right and wishing to convince educators and philanthropists, who were vigilant to protect public morals, on its possible usefulness in their mission, Brocher decided to make his own movies from 1925 onwards. In 1928 he founded the ‘Cinémas populaires romands’ association, attached to the Swiss-French cartel for social and moral hygiene.
Most of Brocher’s films were commissioned or co-produced by religious, philanthropic, or preventive health organisations. However, the necessary funds for the creation and promotion of each new title were mostly raised through profits from the screenings of his previous films – screenings that were put on by Brocher himself, establishing an independent mode of production in the truest sense of the term. Moreover, Brocher’s movies were the result of a ‘one-man operation’: not only did he write his own screenplays and prepare all of the title cards, but he would choose the shooting locations, build artificial sets (when necessary), while also serving as a director of photography and camera operator.
Despite their moralising tone, Brocher’s films were often dark tales of violent acts that sought to be experienced as authentic accounts of life thanks to a distinctly realist style. The plot of Le Criminel inconnu was based on a real life murder case that took place in the Geneva countryside in the mid-1920s. The film constructs an easy-to-grasp causality between the consumption of alcohol and the committing of criminal acts through the use of flashbacks, promoting Christian values such as sobriety and submission to authority. Fittingly, the film’s poster gives an impression of austerity through its monochromatic illustration and by keeping textual information to a bare minimum: ‘le criminel inconnu’ and ‘UN FILM SUISSE DE JEAN BROCHER’ are the only words (apart from the printing company’s signature, in small type in the bottom right). It is of course the film’s title that, by its sheer size and its frisky (if not downright mischievous) style of lettering, draws the attention of anyone who looks at the poster from a distance or up close.
Achilleas Papakonstantis is currently Acting Chief of the Non-Film Department and Head of Research and Publication at the Cinémathèque suisse, where he is mainly in charge of projects that promote and disseminate the institute’s collections, most notably through physical and online exhibitions and publications. Previously, he was a graduate assistant and a lecturer at the Film Studies Department of the University of Lausanne. He is the author of Godard. JE est un autre (Gollion, Infolio, 2021) and a member of the editorial board of Décadrages. Cinéma, à travers champs. He has published numerous articles in books and academic journals.
Gianni Haver and Pierre-Emmanuel Jaques, Le Spectacle cinématographique en Suisse (1895–1945). Lausanne, Éditions Antipodes & Société d’Histoire de la Suisse romande, 2003.
Pierre-Emmanuel Jaques, ‘Cinéma et combat antialcoolique. De quelques films de la Croix-Bleue’ in Revue historique vaudoise n° 115, 2007, pp. 189–197.
Pierre-Emmanuel Jaques, ‘La Cinémathèque suisse face à l’éducation au cinéma: quelques aspects d’une histoire en construction’ in Décadrages, Cinéma à travers le champs n° 31, 2015, pp. 73–86.