Your local billboards might be advertising Hollywood blockbusters for the holiday season, but here at The Calvert Journal, we’re looking back at the best of classic Christmas films from Eastern Europe. As socialist movie theatres did not screen trailers, movie posters were an important marketing tool for filmmakers hoping to entice New Year’s revellers, and required great creativity and ingenuity from their designers. Artworks in their own right, these posters offer a fresh take on our favourite festive films — and are guaranteed to get you into that holiday mood for Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Directed by Eldar Ryazanov in 1975, The Irony of Fate is the Soviet holiday film of note. Still watched by millions every winter, this New Year’s love story has amassed a large number of posters over the years, thanks to its numerous re-releases. The film follows the newly-engaged Zhenya (Andrey Myagkov), who wakes up in Leningrad instead of Moscow after a drunken, celebratory trip to the local banya.
But Zhenya fails to realise he’s in a different city. Instead, he makes his way to a street with the same name as his Moscow address, and — thanks to the magic of Soviet-era urban planning — enters a flat identical to his. There, he meets Nadya, the apartment’s actual owner, who also happens to be his future soulmate.
Natalia Vitsyna’s avant-gardish poster centres on the street sign that brings the pair together, while Vladimir Sachkov’s version sees the cartoon version of Zhenya with his infamous banya whisk.
In Halina Bielińska’s 1967 adaptation of the classic Christmas tale, Marie and Fritz become Marynia (Elżbieta Zagubień) and Frycek (Janusz Pomaski), but the story of the magical dolls and the evil Mouse King remains the same. Nutcracker the film experiments a little with combining live action with stop motion animation, but overall, Eryk Lipiński‘s somewhat spooky poster is arguably bolder and more original than the movie itself — and it is certainly more in the spirit of E.T.A. Hoffman’s gothic story.
Almost all of the posters for Eldar Ryazanov’s 1956 directorial debut portray the charismatic and energetic Lena Krylova: the film’s leading lady, and organiser of the titular New Year’s carnival. Brilliantly played by Lyudmila Gurchenko, Lena embodies humour and creativity — but her high spirits are put to the test when she has to face the horrible bureaucrat and killjoy Comrade Ogurtsov (Igor Ilyinsky). Incredibly witty and subversive, the film features some outstanding 50s outfits — one of which, Lena’s iconic black New-Look dress, you can see on this poster by Nina Golikova.
While American film studios are still trying to put a feminist spin on this classic fairytale, the 1973 Czechoslovak-East German co-production does it effortlessly. Directed by Václav Vorlíček, the familiar story gains a multi-dimensional heroine who is kind and romantic, but also knows her way with a horse and a gun. It is no wonder that the film has become a Christmas staple in many countries beyond Czech Republic and Slovakia, and was remade in Norway just this year. Even though Soňa Vorlíčková’s poster puts the Prince’s image above Cinderella’s, the princess herself looks far more radiant and resplendent. This original poster is available for a mere £300.
Aleksandr Rou’s 1962 film is also an adaptation of a beloved fairytale — except one penned by Nikolai Gogol. Christmas Eve (the title of the literary original) has a rather different sensibility. Combining a romanticist interest in folk culture and his own surrealist sense of humour, Gogol brings the devil himself into this Christmas story. But fear not: in this phantasmagorical tale, the devil soon becomes an unlikely accomplice of the blacksmith Vakula, who is trying to win his beloved’s heart. Aleksandr Lemeshchenko’s poster brings the couple together with the light from Tsaritsa’s slippers that Vakula promises to his sweetheart, while Dmitry Kransopevtsev chooses to picture the comedic duo of the blacksmith and the devil.
Directed in 1999 by Jan Hřebejk, Cosy Dens (or Pelíšky) is a Christmas favourite in Czech Republic — even though the second part of the film takes place over the historic spring and summer of 1968, when Soviet tanks crushed the country’s blossoming attempts at liberalisation. A moving story of three families, the film paints a detailed picture of Czechoslovak society, with a liberal dose of slapstick comedy. Cosy Dens does not lack festive and playful imagery, but designer Aleš Najbrt goes for a minimalist approach with his poster. He focuses on the film’s main symbol — the valuable plastic spoons imported from East Germany — in his almost all-white work, which can be ordered here.
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s acclaimed 1989 series is based on the Ten Commandments — and even though the events of the third film take place at Christmas, it is perhaps not the most cheery title on this list. In this instalment of the Dekalog, Janusz, a taxi driver played by Daniel Olbrychski, has to decide whether to spend Christmas Eve with his wife or his ex-lover. Thus, this episode combines two Biblical dictats: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”, and “Thou shalt not commit adultery”. This poster by contemporary Polish artist Ewa Bajek conveys the film’s entangled relationships and moral dilemmas perfectly — and it is also available for sale, if you don’t mind a somewhat darker Christmas decoration.