The Film Poster of Josef Fenneker

Work Biography

Josef Fenneker began his artistic career with the design of film posters. A total of 364 documented works make up more than 80% of his graphic oeuvre. For the most part they date from the years in Berlin after World War I to 1925. Silent film was reaching an ever-increasing audience at that time, and poster art was at its height. In addition to advertisements in newspapers and magazines, film posters were the most important means of advertising for movie theaters and distributors. Posted on advertising pillars and other surfaces, they maintained enormous circulation primarily in larger cities. The demand for Fenneker’s designs was so great at that time that he sometimes completed three posters a week. He considered the artistic design of film posters as “one of the most interesting tasks in the field of applied art […]. Possibilities exist to a considerable degree to use the imagination and colors from the living entity of film to create posters of great charm and striking character; yes, those that can hardly be forgotten.” (J. Fenneker, Gebrauchsgraphik, vol. 12, no. 4, 1935, pp. 2 and 4).


On Fenneker’s Working Methods

Fenneker recognized an opportunity to deal intensively with the representation of people and their feelings in his designs for film posters. There are only three posters that he conceived completely without figures (Die fünfte Straße, Die Waffen nieder!, Ringende Seelen). Human beings are also the focus of his posters for special events, while object posters and political posters are absent from the spectrum of Fenneker’s commercial graphics. He primarily used production photos and portraits of actors that his customers made available to him as a source of inspiration for his film posters.

Photomontage was out of the question for him as a design technique, however. Fenneker saw himself as a poster artist who carried out his designs exclusively with graphic and painterly means. He proceeded in two steps to achieve this purpose: At first he executed roughly sketched preliminary studies (Dirnentragödie, for example), followed by detailed, small-format designs in opaque colors. Compared to the final versions, these usually lack only the text, and are otherwise normally identical (Der rote Reiter, Liebe im Ring).

Two different printing methods were available at that time: color lithography until the mid-1920s; then later offset printing. Lithography accomodated Fenneker’s frequently experimental and unconventional works of the early years, because this technique made it possible for him to control the transfer of the design to the lithographic printing stones and to modify the color application.

In 1918 Fenneker’s posters were printed exclusively by the lithography institution Hollerbaum & Schmidt. When he switched to the Marmorhaus in 1919, Dinse & Eckert initially took on his commissions, and as of 1922, they were handled primarily by Paul Eckert, who in the meantime had branched out on his own. Through the distribution companies for whom Fenneker designed posters as of 1925, he also came to work with the printer Lindemann & Lüdecke as well as Paul Grasnik, who had specialized in offset printing. Fenneker also frequently collaborated with the offset printer August Scherl. Beginning around 1930 his designs were only produced using offset printing, which can be attributed to a change in prevailing tastes as well as contributing economic factors.

Fenneker’s early film posters could be seen almost exclusively in Berlin. Since they were aimed at a financially strong moviegoing public, they hung primarily within a radius of the cinemas where premieres took place in the western part of Berlin. At the end of the 1920s, Fenneker’s clients were no longer movie theater operators, but rather distribution companies (including Universum-Film-Verleih, Terra-Film, Parufamet, Europa Filmverleih, Deulig-Verleih, Metropol-Filmverleih and Märkische Film GmbH). Correspondingly, some of the posters also received supraregional circulation. This was presumably the case, for example, for the film ZWISCHEN NACHT UND MORGEN, where copies of the posters have also been preserved in Munich and Hamburg collections.

Josef Fenneker transferred the majority of his posters to the “Berlin formats” V (70 x 95 cm) and VI (142 x 95 cm, mounted from two printed sheets), which had gained acceptance over a great number of existing formats in Berlin at that time – less on account of the initially unsuccessful efforts of the “standard committee of the German industry” to unify poster sizes, but much more as a result of the “Berliner Anschlagwesen- und Reklame A. G.,” who, de facto, held the monopoly for notices and announcements in Berlin. It was not until the 1940s, with the reorganization of the DIN standards for film posters, that a DIN format also became obligatory nationwide.

Fenneker frequently designed several poster versions for each film in order to reach different target audiences: for the movie theater and/or the distribution company (Der Richter von Zalamea) or for public postings in the capital or in the provinces (Die drei Portiermädel, portrait format version). Between 1922 and 1924 the Marmorhaus had a two-part special format (140 x 50 cm) produced that covered an entire strip on the advertising columns.



In 1918, during the first year of his work, Josef Fenneker designed more than forty film posters within six months for the Universum Film AG (Ufa) and its cinemas, a company which had been founded the year before. The virtuosity with which he carried out this task and the certainty with which he touched on the nerve of the time was remarkable. As early as January 1919 the author Heinrich Inheim described Fenneker as “the man to watch for the film poster” (H. Inheim, “Das Berliner Plakatjahr 1918,” Das Plakat, vol. 10, no. 1, 1919, p. 74). In terms of content, Fenneker concentrated on portrait posters of movie stars in those years, such as Pola Negri (Carmen) and Albert Bassermann (Lorenzo Buchhardt). In some cases he also realized full-length portraits (Henriette Jacoby). In contrast, the depiction of two or more figures was limited to only a few exceptions. The placement of text on Fenneker’s early film posters was clumsy from time to time and sometimes hardly readable (Clown Charlie).

A roughly sketched style, reminiscent of over-size charcoal drawings, is typical of these works. Generous hatchings, interrupted lines and a mainly monochrome execution are characteristic. Only accents were set in color (e.g. Der Stellvertreter). Since opaque areas are missing, it is the visible paper below the drawing that primarily determines the effect. Expressionist elements are decorative accessories, as in the costumes and background of the Die Nonne und der Harlekin. The works show the influence of Fenneker’s teacher Emil Orlik, as well as his colleagues Ludwig Kainer and Paul Scheurich. Yet the figures nevertheless remain physically realistic in their portrayals, and in part already demonstrate the expressive body language that would become characteristic of Fenneker’s posters in the following years.


1918–1924: Marmorhaus Berlin

Fenneker changed his signature style with the first posters for the Marmorhaus on Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm – Siegerin Weib (1918) and Hyänen der Lust (1919). Color became a supporting design element, and his sketch-like lines gave way to watercolor-like brushstrokes. The now prevalent black background would become Fenneker’s trademark.

With Hyänen der Lust, a combination of themes made their way into his work, which would become central to his oeuvre in the following years, including numerous symbols of death in morbid surroundings, frequently combined with an erotic component. Fenneker’s poster for Hyänen der Lust (2nd part of DER WEG, DER ZUR VERDAMMNIS FÜHRT, D 1919, directed by Otto Rippert) is typical of this genre; the unusual features of his interpretation stand out most particularly when compared to a poster by his colleague Wolfgang Kirchbach (1857–1906) made for the same film. Despite the sensational title of this so-called enlightenment film Kirchbach completely avoids sexual implications and shifts the focus to the female main character desperately crouching down on the ground. In contrast, Fenneker’s depiction highlights a lascivious young woman and the skeleton approaching her, intimating a connection between sexuality and death. Fenneker leaves open whether the woman’s demeanor intends to express horror or lust – and while hinting at the subject of the film in this concentration of motifs, he leaves the interpretation of themes concerned with social taboos up to the viewer.

Fenneker was not interested in pictorial compositions that were geared toward innocuousness in those years; wherever the plot of a film showed corresponding elements, he incorporated poster motifs that played on the tension-filled, morbid or erotic expectations of the viewer.

Fenneker filtered out individual motifs that he liked from the photographic materials made available to him, developing these into new visual solutions that in some cases were only loosely based on the storyline. These deviations become more obvious when compared to the existing production photos, as for example in the film poster for Der Graf von Cagliostro (A, D 1920, directed by Reinhold Schünzel). The poster shows none of the monumental architecture recognizable in the photograph, in front of which the actors appear like marionettes. Instead, Fenneker depicts a duel in close-up, in which the rivals face each other on the diagonal, where the thrust of swords can be shown most effectively. Transforming this scene that took place by daylight into a night scene increased its drama.

Fenneker achieved the exceptional quality in the majority of his posters for the Marmorhaus by employing the same strategy: He freed the characters from their cinematic storylines and staged them in a new context. This worked even for films that the critics had only deemed mediocre. Independent of the Expressionist forms that Fenneker used in a great number of his posters, from an aesthetic viewpoint they served rather conventional films in the majority of applications. Genuine (D 1920, directed by Robert Wiene) is in fact one of the few films specifically related to Expressionism for which Fenneker designed a poster.

He also incorporated influences from Cubism, Futurism, Art Deco and Jugendstil (Art Nouveau). When choosing his stylistic methods, Fenneker generally allowed himself to be inspired by the plot and the title of the film, as well as the available photographs.

While well-known movie stars still dominated as the main motif on the posters in 1918, just a year later two to three protagonists usually featured as the focal point of interaction. The expressive overdrawing and unexpected coloration with which Fenneker frequently made these works may have been a reason that they did not fall victim to censorship, although they often depict subjects that were considered offensive.

References to the Marmorhaus – both the movie theater and its owner – added to all the posters are the main reason for their recognizable stylistic break when compared to works from the year of Fenneker’s debut. Siegbert Goldschmidt insisted on seeing himself and his movie theater immortalized so prominently on the posters that often there was no longer sufficient space for information about the director or actors.

This clear identification of the client, quite unusual before this time, enlarged the function of the posters. Now they no longer advertised only films, but also the movie theaters in which they were shown.

The Marmorhaus, which had opened in 1913, was regarded as the most renowned cinema for world premieres in Berlin. New standards were set in all artistic matters, and the admissions were by far the highest in the city. Goldschmidt’s ambitions to develop a unique advertising profile for his institution were correspondingly high. Fenneker had to orient his posters stylistically to the Marmorhaus’ Expressionist interior design, which fell under the responsibility of Cesár Klein. This affected his coloration, the design of the figures and use of decorative elements. As a result he incorporated decorative set pieces and color accents from the foyer and the auditorium into his designs – sometimes more and sometimes less faithful to the original. However, above all Fenneker established and correlated the type of woman that became typical of his posters at that time. They shared many details with the sculptures of Georg Sieburg, who had decorated the stage proscenium in the Marmorhaus auditorium. Such features included an oval shape to the head, half-closed eyes, a straight nose, and a slender body with elongated limbs cast in an elegant demeanor (Der Teufel und die Circe).

The decorations that Fenneker supplied to Goldschmidt between 1920 and 1922 for other movie theaters that he managed, as well as the Luna Park in Berlin, also followed the same profile.

This most productive phase in the work of the poster artist Josef Fenneker ended abruptly with Goldschmidt’s financial ruin. At the end of 1924 Fenneker lost the patronage of the man, who until then had been his most important client.



Fenneker made only a mere eight posters for four films in 1925. Independent of his reputation and presence in the Berlin cityscape, Fenneker’s unconventional style, which was so decidedly tailored to the Marmorhaus, at first appeared to the big distributors to be rather unsuitable for the typically pleasing supraregional advertising: “Fenneker is excellently suited to Berlin-West audiences […], his posters would be impossible in the provinces.” (Hans Klötzel, Die Reklame, no. 159, 1923)

However, Fenneker’s first work for Terra-Film in 1925 showed evidence of the broad stylistic palette that he possessed. In the landscape format he used in the poster for Die drei Portiermädel (D 1925, directed by Carl Boese) he made use of a “mass fit” design language for the first time. The color palette became friendlier, the opaque backgrounds and the Expressionist angularities gave way to a more elegant design of the figures with clear inspiration from fashion illustrations. The women represented with their long, slim legs seem youthful and fashion conscious (Die 3 Mannequins, Die keusche Susanne). Their faces are not drawn any more naturalistically than on the earlier posters; however, they seem far more lovely on account of the rather round shapes to their heads,with short haircuts, snub noses, red pouting mouths and big wide eyes – even for gloomy film subjects (Du sollst nicht töten!, D 1918, directed by Eugen Burg). Fenneker only occasionally still made use of the black background areas, bringing sparkle to the cosmopolitan world of Berlin’s bohemia with Art Deco and Jugendstil elements (Gräfin Mariza, Der Fürst von Pappenheim). He illustrated comedies in a style reminiscent of comic strips, which played with reversed size relations and a lively, overexcited body language (Die tolle Lola, Im Kampf mit der Unterwelt). Fenneker designed posters for serious subjects more pictorially, with loose brushstrokes and retracted, subdued colors and figure constellations that concisely reflected the conflicts of the film stories (Junges Blut, Hölle der Liebe, Liebeshandel).

Fenneker’s typical, comparatively more static painting style in the National Socialist period, which relied less on originality or eccentricities than his earlier work, was heralded in the poster for Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff (D 1931, directed by Fedor Ozep) – although still in an unrealistic stylistic language. It manifested itself in the distorted perspective showing the embrace of the protagonists and the form-fitting dress with Expressionist details, under which a body defying any anatomical correctness stands out.


Fenneker’s Work in the National Socialist Period

Fenneker’s work underwent a stylistic change immediately after the National Socialists seized power – including Spione am Werk (D 1933, directed by Gerhard Lamprecht) and Schleppzug M17 (D 1933, directed by Heinrich George, Werner Hochbaum). He forced his motifs into a photo-realistic design language with broad brushstrokes, strong opaque colors and a sometimes Impressionistic style. The posters almost literally changed into oil paintings. After 1933 an unexpected uniformity in composition and coloration was all that remained from what until then had been a broadly diversified stylistic mix in his work. Although his designs in the late 1920s were considerably more complaisant than his first posters, they nevertheless conveyed the sweeping dynamics of the Marmorhaus period. In contrast, most of Fenneker’s designs from the Nazi period seem static and lifeless.

This development was due primarily to the cultural political changes implemented by the National Socialist regime. The entire German cinema was already under state control by the beginning of 1934. A doubly imposing paternalism resulted as a consequence for film poster artists. They were forced to become members in the Reichskammer der bildenden Künste (Reich Chamber of Fine Arts) and moreover had to submit their designs to the Reichsfilmkammer (Film Chamber of the Reich), which was directly under the authority of the Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda (Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda). The primarily purpose of these control authorities was to prevent “subjects from being treated that go directly against the spirit of the times,” as was proclaimed in the new Lichtspielgesetz (Cinema Act) of February 16, 1934 (Deutsches Reichsgesetzblatt I [RGBl.I], p. 95, Lichtspielgesetz §2, section 5). Compared to previous censorship decrees, what was new was that it was no longer just moral aspects of the films that were under assessment (with regard to any effects liable to corrupt the young, for example), but also the aesthetics. A film was subject to a ban if it could be assumed it might cause “injury to National Socialist, religious, moral or artistic perceptions” (ibid., § 5). The same applied to film advertising. A “fight against kitsch” was exclaimed with the assistance of censorship. It aimed to replace the advertising of the Weimar Republic, now branded as “Jewish,” with “German advertising” (Johannes Kamps, Studien zur Geschichte des deutschen Filmplakats von den Anfängen bis 1945, Wiesbaden, 2004, pp. 63 and 125).

The articles by and about Josef Fenneker, published in 1934 and 1935 in the Völkischer Beobachter, in the Film-Kurier and in Gebrauchsgraphik, should be viewed in this context. In them he marketed himself as a “propaganda artist for good film posters” (“Propaganda: Fennecker” [sic], Film-Kurier, vol. 16, no. 166, July 18, 1934, Berlin) and as a “fighter against kitsch posters” (J. Fenneker, “Kampf gegen Kitsch-Plakate!,” Der Film und seine Welt. Weekly insert of the Völkischer Beobachter, 118th edition, vol. 47, April 28, 1934). Fenneker’s style of work was tangibly different from that of his colleagues in that he avoided mere montages of photos. His designs were based on cinematic scenes, instead of arbitrary line-ups with portraits of movie stars. Even during the Nazi period Fenneker remained faithful to himself in the retention of these artistic principles. Nevertheless an innocuous and unified style predominates in his posters from those years, confined to imitating photographic materials and limiting the use of shrill or bright colors.

The subjects of these works were mainly what appeared to be unpolitical entertainment films, such as Hochzeit am Wolfgangsee (D 1933, directed by Hans Behrendt), Sonnenstrahl (A 1933, directed by Paul Fejos) and Das Lied der Sonne (D 1933, directed by Max Neufeld). Unlike his colleague Theo Matejko (1893–1946), Fenneker avoided blood and soil ideological references in his posters. Except for his poster for the National Socialist propaganda film Hans Westmar. Einer von vielen. Ein deutsches Schicksal aus dem Jahre 1929 (D 1933, directed by Franz Wenzler) depicting an SA fighter in an authoritative and overbearing pose, Fenneker largely managed to do without Nazi symbolism in his works.

He continued to demonstrate his formal prowess in the representation of themes about adventurers, in which dramatic picture composition, perspectival refinements and the use of predominantly muted colors recall his earlier creative phases (Der Schimmelreiter, Der Kurier des Zaren, Der Student von Prag).

When Fenneker began an engagement as a set designer at the Duisburg opera in 1935, the number of film posters that he produced rapidly decreased. The last works he did before end of the war seem inspired by his theater work (Stern von Rio, Maske in Blau). The brush style is looser, the colors are pastel tones and the manner of painting is roughly sketched. Design elements from the 1920s, which Fenneker had avoided for so long, shimmer through here once more.


Postwar Years

Even after World War II the poster artist went back to earlier stylistic elements. Merely two film posters exist from that time: Affaire Blum (1948) and Hoffmanns Erzählungen (1951), Fenneker’s last poster design. The black two-dimensional background, the sketchiness and design language of the dress and eyes of the woman portrayed are strongly reminiscent of the style of his work for the Marmorhaus. “Paper framing” had also occasionally already appeared in the Marmorhaus posters. And thus, the means of expression that Fenneker developed for his poster art had come full circle, so to speak; allowing reminiscence and synthesis to become one.

Josef Fenneker’s carefree use of the most diverse styles and forms makes it difficult to situate his work art historically or even unambiguously. A linear stylistic development cannot be recognized in his film posters, but rather stylistic changes, which in each case were accompanied by varying external circumstances. Fenneker often set off on ways of his own in his artistic approaches towards a film’s storyline. He did not always manage to live up to the ever-changing prevalent tastes of a wide audience, but critics attested to his “style – real, effervescent, surging movie theater style” (Walter F. Schubert, “Das Deutsche Filmplakat,” Das Plakat, vol. 11, no. 10, special issue of Der Film, October 1920, p. 448).

In view of the abundance of posters that Fenneker created, especially in the years before 1930, it is not surprising that he made use of a certain economy in his work by varying figure types, which he designed over and over again. It is these repetitions that make Fenneker’s specific aesthetics comprehensible. This is shown particularly clearly in the standardization of the female figures who dominate his poster work. The film poster for Ehrenschuld (D 1921, directed by Paul Ludwig Stein) can be regarded as almost prototypical for the Marmorhaus era: to the left a woman’s head stretches upwards, her eyes half-closed, her mouth slightly opened so that her white teeth are visible, her undressed upper body alluded to right below; to the right is a type of silhouette of this. It was inspired by one of Georg Sieburg’s sculptures, designed symmetrically; a clearly contoured oval woman’s head with very high set, arched eyebrows and a straight nose. These two female figures are connected by a man’s head dominating the center of the composition, portrayed in a Cubist style with shaded eyes. He is a figure that Fenneker varied often. What is typical of him is the elongated, bony and pointed fingers of the outspread hand on the right side in the foreground.

Fenneker’s typical portrayals of women became more and more pleasing as of the mid-1920s with the changing prevailing tastes and the disappearance of Sittenfilme (films dealing with morals and sexual taboos) from cinema programs. Nevertheless they remained masked and easily recognizable in the spectrum of their emotions. This was especially true for the type of woman with a Bubikopf (bobbed haircut) that Fenneker regularly depicted after around 1925, almost stereotypically, with innocent eyes and a slightly opened mouth. Observations like this illustrate that it is not Fenneker’s representations of the emotions of individual protagonists that constituted the quality of his film posters, but his outstanding ability to convert the essence of a film story into poster motifs.

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