Germany / 1922
The Chinese and southeast Asian tradition of shadow puppets was brought to Europe as the far corners of the world were explored and culturally plundered in the last few centuries and this became a popular theatrical attraction, particularly in France, at end of 19th century. This tradition, combined with the Victorian skill of creating cutout likenesses of people, was probably an influence on the beautiful films of legendary German animator Lotte Reiniger.
Reiniger’s unique style and technique means that her work—unlike that of some of the other great animators—is instantly recognizable as her own. Her delicate cutout silhouette method, developed during childhood, carried her through a long and productive career that spanned 60 years and many different countries, and enabled her to work simultaneously within the mainstream and avant-garde sectors of animation. Her passion for producing animated versions of fairy tales has probably influenced the course of mainstream animation and its association with stories of this type.
Lotte led the kind of fascinating life common to many of the early animators, in which she met and collaborated with many of the great artists of European film of her era and traveled the world making her unique films. A pioneer in techniques such as multi-plane camera, she was using them years before the mainstream industrialists like Walt Disney discovered their advantages, as well as probably influencing Disney to use fairy tales as the basis for many of his great commercial features. Reiniger was responsible for the oldest surviving animated feature film, (The Adventures of Prince Achmed, 1926 ), also the first animated feature to be directed by a woman. Incredibly it wasn’t until sixty two years later with Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt that a woman would even co-direct an animated feature film in the USA.
Born in Berlin in 1899, as a child Reiniger developed the seemingly self-taught technique of cutting out freehand paper silhouettes, often producing portraits of people and animals which she used in her own homemade shadow theatre productions. Later she developed a keen interest in cinema, firstly in the stage-magic-style special effects films of Georges Méliès and then in the work of Paul Wegener, the German expressionist director of The Student of Prague (1913) and Der Golem (1915, also remade in 1920). After attending a lecture by Wegener in 1915 about “trick” films (or special effects, as we now call them), she knew that was what she wanted to be involved in.
Beginning her career as part of the group of ambitious and influential animators working in pre-World War II Germany, Reiniger was a central figure in the avant-garde movement, despite being distinct from the others in the group due to her generally more accessible figurative style and more traditionally narrative-led subject matter.
In 1916 Reiniger persuaded her parents to let her enroll in Max Reinhardt’s theatre school in Berlin as she knew Wegener was a member of the acting troupe there. In an attempt to get to know him, she made cutout silhouette portraits of the school’s actors in their most famous roles. Due to her skill at creating these silhouettes, this plan worked splendidly and she was soon creating captions and title cards for Wegener, animating wooden rats in his Der Rattenfänger von Hameln (The Pied Piper of Hamelin, 1918), and even taking small roles in his films.
Wegener introduced her to a group who were setting up a new experimental animation studio, the Institut für Kulturforschung (The Institute for Cultural Discovery). In this group were animator Berthold Bartosch and Reiniger’s future husband, the writer and director Carl Koch. Wegener suggested that Reiniger’s silhouettes might have potential for interesting animation and, after learning the techniques from Bartosch, she started to produce her own films. The first of these was Das Ornament des Verliebten Herzen (The Ornament of the Lovestruck Heart, 1919) about two lovers and an ornament which changed according to their moods. Her attraction to fairy tales soon became apparent as she produced Aschenputtel (Cinderella, 1922) and Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty, 1922). She was also known for creating, along with avant-garde animator Walther Ruttman, a dream sequence featuring a silhouetted falcon in Fritz Lang’s movie Die Nibelungen (1924).
Cinderella, “a fairy film in shadow show” as we are told in a caption at the start, typifies Reiniger’s work, combining the simple and elegant silhouette storytelling style with the intricate delicacy and precision of the cut out character animation, where despite these simple techniques and lack of dialogue, characters seem to have has an individual distinct personality which is is distinct and recognisable.
Paradoxically, this same simplicity, rather than dating the films, seems to give them a timeless quality and they still seem amazingly fresh today to both adults and children. In fact if someone made a film like this now (and some contemporary films aren’t actually a million miles away), I’m sure it would still be accepted and admired in film festivals (and then of course probably ripped off – sorry, I mean ‘paid homage to’ – by the advertising industry).
Visual highlights are the graceful figure of Cinderella, who seems to capture the essence of feminine beauty despite being a simple cut out , her elaborate and exotic wedding dress made for her by her friends the birds and mice, and the stylised marching animation of the soldiers. As well as these cutout methods, other techniques are tried by Reiniger, and remember this was made in 1922 so these were probably developed and invented by her own experimentation, and with her colleagues in the group. Replacement animation can be seen as a pumpkin grows to a full sized coach and horses and also the jagged vignette outlines which expand, reveal and window the scenes through the black background. More conventional vignettes are also used, as often in silent film, where the image fades away in a circular gradient around it, adding texture and softness to the stark black and white.
The slightly sinister spiky vignette shapes, designed around the theme of the scissor cut paper but also looking a bit like sharks teeth, give the film a bit of the expressionist feel of Wegener’s work and an ominous feeling of underlying darkness, encouraging the suspicion that the ‘shadow show’ we were promised, as with the contrast between darkness and light in the overall design, is as much of a psychological reference as about the visual technique. This dark element to the the story is confirmed later in quite shocking scenes, which also sit well with the scissor cut theme, where one of the cruel ‘ugly step sisters’ cuts off part of her foot in order to squeeze into Cinderellas slipper and drips blood all the way to the castle and then their mother is literally ripped apart by the pain of learning that Cinderella has been chosen by the Prince instead of her real daughter.
This horror element to the story was something that most original fairy tales contained. but which were jettisoned by later 20th Century book and film versions, such as the sanitised Disney version of Cinderella, as the company reacted to criticisms of frightening kids with scary scenes in its early masterpieces Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, Bambi, Fantasia and Dumbo.
The various sequences of the film are framed with written texts, which appear in the same jagged shaped vignettes, and appear a bit superfluous to modern audiences, outlining the familiar narrative which is then told perfectly well cinematically in the animation. These captions were reportedly added later at the advice of a producer when Reiniger was working in England, where she also remade the story in a more TV friendly version thirty two years later.
The highlight for me is the beginning of the film, when unusually for early cinema, the illusion is revealed before it is even established, as after the caption tells us the story is “told by a pair of scissors on a screen” we see (presumably) Reiniger’s hands cutting out the character of Cinderella, which then gracefully comes to life, and the whole magic of animation is crystallised in those few seconds.
A few years after Cinderella and a number of other beautiful shorts, after a chance meeting with wealthy investor Louis Hagen, Reiniger was presented with an opportunity to make a feature film. The result was Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed, 1926), the oldest surviving animated feature film and was the first to use multiplane camera effects. Other animators working with her on this ambitious enterprise included Berthold Bartosch, Walther Ruttman, and Carl Koch, who by this point was her husband, producer, and camera operator.
Helped by movie director and actor Jean Renoir, Prince Achmed achieved international commercial and critical success. Renoir described Reiniger’s work as “a visual interpretation of Mozart,” an apt description as music and operas, along with fairy tales, were favorite themes of hers, producing versions of Carmen (1933), Papageno (1935), based on Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, and then Helen La Belle (1957) from Offenbach’s music, and A Night in a Harem (1958), again from Mozart. She also contributed a silhouette animation to Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1938).
Further films made in Germany were the animated Doktor Dolittle und seine Tiere (Doctor Dolittle and His Animals, 1928) and the live-action Die Jagd nach dem Glück (Running After Luck, 1929). The latter, co-directed with Rochus Gliese and starring Jean Renoir and Berthold Bartosch, featured a 20-minute silhouette sequence. This film was unfortunately completed just before the advent of sound and was then hastily and unsuccessfully dubbed into sound before its release.
Like fellow animator Oskar Fischinger and many other artists, Reiniger and Koch fled their native country when the Nazis came to power in the 1930s. As no country would take them as refugees or asylum seekers, they were forced to keep traveling round the world for six years, returning to Germany several times. Nevertheless they carried on working in Germany, Italy, France, and Great Britain during the prewar and war years, until they settled in London in 1948.
During their many years in England, Reiniger and Koch produced a huge volume of work including films for the BBC and the GPO film unit, such as The King’s Breakfast (1936). They also established a company called Primrose Productions and created a series of fairy tales for producer Louis Hagen Jr. (son of the financier of Prince Achmed), including The Gallant Little Tailor (1954), Jack and the Beanstalk (1955) and the remake of Cinderella (1954).
After Carl Koch’s death in 1963, Reiniger took a break from making films and spent a number of years as a near recluse. In the late 1960s there was a revival of interest in her work and she was invited to visit Germany for the first time since her move to London. She was presented with several awards honoring her career. Later she was also invited to lecture in the USA, during which time she described herself as “a primitive caveman artist.” Despite this rather deprecating view of her art, the enthusiastic reception she received persuaded her to start work once again.
In 1976 Reiniger went to Canada where she made Aucassin et Nicolette and later The Rose and the Ring (1979) for the National Film Board. In her last decade she spent time lecturing and teaching around the world. Her final film was Die vier Jahreszeiten (The Four Seasons, 1980), made for the Filmmuseum Düsseldorf the year before she died.
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