Film Comment is currently on temporary hiatus. Learn more in our FAQ >>

Graphic Detail: Bronisław Zelek

For the Polish designer, words were always as important as images

For the Polish designer Bronisław Zelek, words were always as important as images. In his haunting 1967 poster for Henning Carlsen’s Hunger, the title squats in the cerebrum of a ravaged anatomical skull, the rounds of its letters looking like misplaced eyes. His poster for Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool is all lettering: a multihued pop-art assemblage of license plates and bumper stickers. But it is his iconic poster for Hitchcock’s The Birds that uses type most dramatically, with the repeated Polish title advancing in swarms behind a death’s-head on wings. Zelek, who passed away in 2018 at the age of 82, made more than 100 posters in the 1960s while working as an assistant to the great progenitor of the Polish Poster School, Henryk Tomaszewski, at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. Though he ostensibly retired from graphic design in 1970 and moved to Vienna to devote his life to painting, his stark, iconic posters have remained hugely influential. His image of disembodied hands embracing the back of an anonymous head for Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) was “borrowed” 40 years later in the international posters for Woody Allen’s 2010 You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, while his composition for the Brigitte Bardot love triangle Two Weeks in September (1967), in which hands cradle an empty swath of halftone dots, may well have influenced Vasilis Marmatakis’s design for The Lobster. Hands feature prominently in much of Zelek’s work: a finger morphs into the barrel of a revolver for Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969), and a black hand containing Brock Peters’s superimposed face reaches for the sky in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Though he tended to favor monochrome photographs with the contrast turned up high, he occasionally used bold planes of color, as with his blue-faced Lee Marvin—a rare image of a movie star in his work—for Point Blank (1967). Before he completely left the world of graphic design, Zelek continued his devotion to lettering by becoming a font designer in the mid-’70s, creating two self-named typefaces still in use today: the rounded, Escher-like “Zelek,” and the jagged, interlocking “New Zelek 45” (which sliced off the corners of its letters at a 45-degree angle), used most famously in the logotype of the British electronic music duo Basement Jaxx.

The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1963)
Hunger (Henning Carlsen, Denmark/Norway/Sweden, 1966)
Far from the Madding Crowd (John Schlesinger, UK, 1967)


(All images courtesy of Heritage Auctions and Posteritati)

Adrian Curry writes about movie posters for and is the design director for Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber.