Ever passed by Kurfürstendamm or Karl-Marx-Allee and wondered who is behind those giant hand-painted movie posters that tower over the likes of the Delphi Filmpalast, Cinema Paris, Kino International? You know the ones: those huge billboard reproductions with significantly more pizzazz than your average marketing placard, painstakingly copied from the film prints. Meet Götz Valien, the Austrian-born Berliner who has been painting those billboards for the past 30 years.
“It never was the plan to do billboard painting,” says the jovial 61-year-old. “I wanted to make films!” Görz, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Andy Warhol, studied art at the College of Applied Arts in Vienna, before moving to Berlin in 1985. Then in his mid-twenties, the young Austrian was engrossed in cinema and the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch and the idea to get enrolled in the renowned Berlin film school Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin (DFFB). He tried twice, to no avail.
Life carried on: he met his wife, had his first child and took up painting again. Then came a random meeting with a filmmaker friend who told him about two older men on the brink of retirement who were painting film billboards for the many Kinos which used to line the Ku’damm – back when digital printing wasn’t yet commonplace. “I thought to myself that this could be a good opportunity to get a bit more money,” Valien explains. “I showed up in 1992 to the studio on Markstraße, where I still paint to this day, and four years later the two artists – Kurt Degen and Henrich Verner – had died.”
The only main competition in Berlin was an ex-DDR company that was on the brink of giving up the business, as the quality of work just wasn’t there. “They were not very good and had recently butchered Kevin Costner’s face. You could only tell it was him because of the name on the poster. So with the competition gone, Kurt and Henrich no longer with me, suddenly I was alone. And this was a problem at the time, as this was just supposed to be the day job!”
Man vs. machine
Since 1996, Valien has become the sole freelance producer of an art form sadly on the wane.
The history of hand-painted billboards dates back to when French cinemas began to use illustrated posters to promote movies and it is thought that the first poster dates back to the Lumière brothers’ 1895 film L’arroseur Arrosé, painted by Marcellin Auzolle. Posters gained more popularity in the 1910s all over Europe with the ever-growing interest in silent movies, when production houses began to employ artists and designers to advertise the latest releases out on the streets. The practice had all but died out by the 1970s and 80s, by which time plastic affiches were sold to cinemas to promote the films, digital printing became cheaper and hand-painted posters gradually became a thing of the past. Some countered this digitalisation and distinct hand-painted film poster traditions arose in Poland, Ghana and India. This was seen as a way to preserve a certain cultural heritage which Berlin clung to for longer compared to its European neighbours, wishing to not go full Hollywood and celebrate the artistry of local painters and artists.
“There’s only so long you can hold back the tide… I associate the arrival of digital printing with Jurassic Park by Steven Spielberg,” Valien recalls. “The quality wasn’t quite there prior to 1993 and at the beginning it was still expensive. So, I told the cinemas: ‘I’m no more expensive than these prints, I’m as fast as a printer, and I’m even better!”
He did end up painting the Jurassic Park poster, calling it “an experiment that looked a bit too wrinkly”, and his bravado paid off. The offers kept on coming, especially from arthouse cinemas and primarily from the 14 theatres of the local Yorck Group. “It went on and it didn’t stop! It was my fault that it continued. I’ve done about 3,000 billboards over the past 30 years. I did the most foolish thing a human can ever do – to go into competition with a machine!”
It’s no exaggeration. Pre-pandemic, Valien would paint 80 to 100 posters in a single year. This is still a mark down from the 90s, when the Kurfürstendamm counted many more cinemas that have now been replaced by H&M and Apple stores. At that time, it could go up to 150. In 2021, he still averaged up to 40 billboards, despite the cinema closures and delayed releases.
Valien’s craft requires him to use a variety of tools that allow him to paint with as much speed as possible: a projector, airbrushes, spray guns. The pace is breakneck and, depending on the poster image (the number of actors, how intricate the photograph and lettering is), one billboard never takes him more than two days. A feat made all the more impressive when one considers the sizes of the canvas he’s working on: smaller two-metre-by-two-metre canvases for Filmtheater am Friedrichshain, nine-metre- wide for Delphi Filmpalast and nine-metre- high for Kino International. For the latter, the canvas is divided into five parts, meaning Valien can only see two segments at a time.
“I never truly see the whole thing in the studio. And regarding speed, I don’t get much money for this, and I don’t get paid more because I paint longer. That’s why I became fast!” he explains. “Astor can call me on a Monday and say that they are changing the film on Thursday because of bad audience attendance figures over the weekend. They’ll send me the poster to paint, the earliest I start is on the Tuesday, and they want to have it hanging on the Wednesday! It’s totally crazy!”
He says that details and accuracy are more problematic at times than the size of the canvases, and confesses that the hardest thing remains coming into the studio in the morning and being faced with nine square metres of blank canvas: “It requires quite a lot of courage to do this, but step by step, it’s like a dream that becomes more precise. But I still like it to this day. It’s not a bad job to paint an oversized Nicole Kidman!”
When Valien first started out he would get commissions from over 15 establishments in Berlin, now it’s closer to five. “It’s not really normal that this still exists nowadays,” he admits. Indeed, why bother with such a Sisyphean task? After all, it would be less time, effort and money for cinemas to just advertise the new releases with standard marketing posters. The Berlin cinemas could save a few pennies by sticking to digital prints now that they’re up and running once more.
Predictably, everyone is tight-lipped when it comes to the price tag of these painted pieces, but Daniel Sibbers, responsible for Marketing and Distribution for the Yorck Group, is clear about the value of the hand-painted posters’ unique selling point. “It would be a sin to replace these paintings with digital prints,” Sibbers says. “Yes, it would be cheaper to do so, but these painted billboards are part of our identity and a part of Berlin’s cinema heritage that we don’t want to get lost. It’s a privilege to have him paint for us.”
Valien describes his own particular style as “virtual realism”, something he defines as an illusion that seems real. “There’s an aesthetic philosophy to painting the posters,” he says. “They are a little bit different. I try to be as close to the original poster as possible, but becomes more abstract in a way. The more there are little differences in my paintings compared to the original image, the more people look a second time. That’s the main concern of advertising: how to get the attention of a viewer.”
Valien is bracing himself for a busy start to 2022. On top of his poster commissions, the artist has a new exhibition Lieber Maler (Dear Painter) opening at HaL (Haus am Lützowplatz) in Tiergarten. “One of the themes of this exhibition has a lot to do with my cinema billboards,” he explains. “When it comes to photorealism and the better you are at creating an illusion of the real, the painter and author of the piece
then disappears. As long as I make a naïve, dilettante painting, then I’m the author. But the closer I get to photographic accuracy, the more I disappear.”
With so much going on, Valien is candid about the fact that sooner or later he’ll have to stop: “I’ve always compared the work and rhythm of doing these paintings to being as foolish as trying to clean up a highway with a toothbrush,” he chuckles. “I don’t know if there is someone else who’ll be crazy enough to work so much. Maybe someone will read this article and decide they are.”