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McKnight Kauffer Musings

I inadvertently erased this post - this may differ slightly from the one I previously published!

I recently wrote a Blog post about McKnight Kauffer’s involvement with Alfred Hitchcock’s film, The Lodger, in which Kauffer designed a series of inter-film title cards. I also revealed that he received a headline in London’s Evening Standard newspaper (November 1926) stating that his “Posters [were] Too Good For Films”, having had two designs for The Lodger rejected by the film’s distribution company. One of these designs ended up in the Museum of Modern Art archive in New York, donated to MoMA by Kauffer following his 1937 retrospective exhibition of posters held there in 1937.

Curiously another Kauffer design for a film poster was donated (anonymously) to MoMA. It is signed by E. McKnight Kauffer but not dated – but MoMA confidently state 1926. The gouache artwork was for the pioneering German science-fiction film Metropolis. It is curious on a number of levels. If the date given by MoMA is correct then Kauffer must have seen a rough cut of the film, as it was not shown to the general public until 1927 – it premiered in Berlin on 10 January 1927 and, vastly edited versions were first shown in the USA and the United Kingdom in March 1927.

Curious, too, as I don’t know who commissioned Kauffer’s design. If it was a commission, then the most likely client would have been The Film Society – Kauffer was a council member for a period of time (he resigned his membership in 1939!) – although I cannot see the film mentioned in a cursory look at the British Film Institute’s online archive for the Film Society.

To the design itself. Apart from the downtrodden workers, depicted here with their bald heads bowed, the design is, strangely, bright and uplifting. Monumental wheels symbolise the machinery that drives the futuristic city of skyscrapers. The design is carefully worked out so that it could be printed in 4 colours, but no room has been left for any text – one would expect at least the director’s name, plus some of the leading actors.

A number of posters were used to advertise the film in different parts of the world. The best known of these today is the iconic 3-sheet poster designed by the German illustrator Heinz Schulz-Neudamm (1899 – 1969) – partly because it is thought to be the world’s most expensive poster. In 2005 a collector paid $690,000 for a Neudamm Metropolis poster. It was resold at auction in 2012, but as part of a collection of film posters (the 2005 collector who purchased this version of the poster filed for bankruptcy). The collection sold for $1.2 million – with no specific value placed upon the Metropolis poster. I can only guess that it would therefore amount to circa $700,000 / $800,000 of the total paid for

the collection.

It was claimed at the time that this was one of only four known copies of the poster. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has two versions of the poster in its collection, one with text, one without. There is a sans text version in the Austrian National Library, the Berlin Film Museum owns one, allegedly the film actor Leonardo DiCaprio owns one, and another was put up for sale at an auction in Texas in February 2021. That makes at least seven extant versions.

Neumann continued to design film posters, but none of them match the sheer dynamism of his Metropolis poster. The one I show here is typical of his later work

Panhandle, 1948, directed by Lesley Selander
(film given a more descriptive title in Germany!)

Carrying out research for this Bog post I found a number of black and white newspaper advertisements in US and Canadian newspapers. They are interesting for the brash style of copywriting.

Knoxville News Sentinel, Knoxville, Tennessee October 1927

Winnipeg Tribune, Manitoba August 1927

News-Journal, Mansfield, Ohio,
December 1927

Edmonton Journal, Alberta
December 1927
(“…caused so much comment in Great Britain
and the States”

Harrisburg Telegraph, Pennsylvania
August 1927

“…try to describe it” [sic]

The film was first shown in England at the Marble Arch Pavilion in March 1927

The London Evening Standard film critic, Walter Mycroft (?), claimed that the manager of the Marble Arch Pavilion had read an article he had written about the making of the film the previous year and had taken an option on showing the film when other West End London cinemas had turned it down. The film proved so popular with its audience that the cinema was able to put on three performances a day.

This is the cover of the souvenir programme for the Premiere showing of the film at the Marble Arch Pavilion on 21 March 1927. The cover is adapted from another stunning poster for the film, by the German artist and writer Werner Graul (1905 – 1984). He was only 21 years of age when he produced this artwork

The film was hugely expensive to make, and the first version was seen as too long for showings outside Germany. Severe cuts were made to fit the time schedules set by cinema chains elsewhere. Some of the costs are shown in this list provided by the Assistant Producer of the film. The film script asked for 6,000 baldheaded men, the workers, but only 1,000 were found and filmed six times to create the effect of the 6,000

The sheer complexity and scale of the sets can be seen in this photograph taken during the making of the film

I still do not know why McKnight Kauffer produced his artwork for a proposed Metropolis poster. Was it a

commission, or was it a speculative design he hoped would be taken up by The Film Society or a British cinema chain?

McKnight Kauffer’s design for the Metropolis poster can be seen at the largest ever retrospective exhibition of Kauffer’s work at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.


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