In 1926, eleven years before Walt Disney’s Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs, German animator Lotte Reiniger released her full-length silhouette animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed. While generations are familiar with Snow White and recognize the name Walt Disney, very few, sadly, have even heard of Lotte Reiniger. How did such a pioneer in the field become so easily forgotten? She created over sixty films but of those, eleven are considered lost, and fifty have survived.
From the time she was a girl in Berlin, Germany, Lotte was fascinated by silhouettes and paper cutting. She delighted in creating shadow puppets and putting on plays of Shakespeare and of the fairy tales she so dearly loved to entertain her family in their living room in the puppet theatre she had built. As she once said in an interview, “I could cut silhouettes almost as soon as I could manage to hold a pair of scissors. I could paint, too, and read, and recite; but these things did not surprise anyone very much. But everybody was astonished about the scissor cuts, which seemed a more unusual accomplishment. The silhouettes were very much praised, and I cut silhouettes for all the birthdays in the family. Did anyone warn me as to where this path would leave? Not in the least; I was encouraged to continue.”
It was only after seeing the films of Georges Méliès that she decided she wanted to combine her love of shadow puppets with this magical new medium of film. German director Paul Wegener, who was best known for his Expressionist film based on the Jewish myth, The Golem (1915). It was he who introduced Lotte to a group of young, experimental animators who were setting up their own studio. It was working with them that she made her own first film, Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens (The Ornament of a Loving Heart) in 1919. It was at this studio that she would meet Bertolt Brecht and, later, her future husband Carl Koch.
It was in 1923 that Reiniger began her first feature film. For three years in an attic in Potsdam, she would work on her first animated feature. She described her crude working conditions this way:
The studio was very low, being an attic under the roof, so the shooting field with its glass plate had to be very near the floor in order to get the camera up high enough in a suitable distance, with just enough space to place the lamps underneath. I had to kneel on the seat of an old dismantled motorcar to execute my manipulation. I liked this very much; it was a much more comfortable position for me than sitting on a swivel chair as I had to do later on. The whole contraption looked like a four-poster bed: the camera being supported by sturdy wooden beams on which we could fix and take off to our heart’s content ever construction we might need for our special effects.
With simple tools like scissors and cardboard sheets, she would cut the figures and backgrounds to create a form of shadow-animation that has its tradition in Chinese shadow puppetry. In her book Shadow Puppets, Shadow Theatres and Shadow Films, Reiniger writes, “Your aim must be to find what kind of talent you really have and to develop it. Animation is basically not so much a technical implement as the expression of the spirit behind it. To see that that spirit goes into your shooting must be your overriding ambition.”
Many of her friends and colleagues were disappointed with Reiniger’s decision to animate a fairy tale instead of dealing with the political and economic problems of Germany at that time. Esther Leslie said, “What did the dancing shadows, trapped in a flat world of genies and demons, caught only with sidelong glances, have to do with the spectacular collapse of the German economy in the epoch of hyperinflation?” Why was she creating pure fantasy during a time of great upheaval? Those around Reiniger saw fairy tales as sheer escapism, as irrelevant to a suffering nation, and had no greater context on the society that they saw in crisis. Lotte would only say, “I believe in the truth of fairy tales more than I believe in the truth of the newspaper.”
What they failed to grasp, as so many people do about fairy tales, is escapism in the sense of freeing a bird from its cage is. Using the lens of fantasy, these tales cause those who read them to see their own world more clearly. Within her tale (based on elements of One Thousand and One Nights and “The Story of Prince Ahmed and the Fairy” in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book), Reiniger presents a story that contains feminism and equality as well as issues about class that resonate even today. Like all great storytellers, Lotte Reiniger spins a tale that reaches a deeper truth through the use of imagery, metaphor, and subtext.
Reiniger’s films are fairy tales that are closer to their roots than Disney: dark, European fairy tales without sentimentality. The grace and complexity she achieves with such simplicity and beauty of imagery are astounding. Prince Ahmed is a glorious, wonderful film full of lyrical beauty, eerie magic, charming comedy, and does not shy away from the sinister and frightening evil. These elegant shadows flit across the screen as if we are watching a kind of dream. Her film contains both the magical playfulness she delighted in seeing in the films of Georges Méliès and the dreamlike horrors she saw in the works of Paul Wegener. Her peer, Hans Richter, said that, while her films were based on fairy tales and she used the ancient techniques of shadow puppets, she “belonged to the avant-garde as far as independent production and courage were concerned.”
Drawing from both the traditions of fairy tale and the techniques used by Javanese Wayang shadow puppets, Reiniger and combined those with German Expressionism to create animated films that are imaginative, innovative, and sublime.
An auteur of filmmaking, Lotte wrote all her scripts, drew her own storyboards, cut and made all of the silhouette figures and manipulated them while her husband ran the camera. The multiplane camera used for animation was also her own invention. Walt Disney, himself, studied her technique closely and developed a more sophisticated multiplane camera, which he patented. Her work would inspire later animators like Michel Ocelet (best known for his animated film Kirikou and the Sorceress) and stop-motion animator Henry Selick (who created such films as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline). Selick has said, “I was influenced by Reiniger, with her twitchy, cutout animation, which I happened to see at a very young age.”
Reiniger’s worlds are created out of shadow and light and yet one watches her films with awe at the emotional range she is capable of creating out of cut paper. There is a visual richness to these films that fit well with their retelling of classic fairy tales. Like a sorceress, Reiniger can conjure life out of shadow play as no one else has before or since. They are enchanting and one can easily become engrossed by what some might view as their naive charm. But that is discounting the detailed and delicate forms that she masterfully created. Since the figures are silhouettes, Reiniger had to use gestures and movement to express feelings and action.
Her black and white images fit nicely into a genre (fairy tales) in which there are good and evil. It is not about nuance but deals in tropes and her films are a pure manifestation of them. There is a magic to her animation. Czech animator Jan Svankmajer explained, “Animation enables me to give magical powers to things and to cast doubt over reality.” For Reiniger the medium fit with fairy tales and fantasy because they allowed for the characters to do magical and fantastic things that could not be done in real life. Besides, from the time she was a little girl, she was captivated by fairy tales and fables whose characters and elements of magic were simply irresistible.
Reiniger continued to create her animated films all the way up until her death in 1981. When asked why she focused on fairy tales for children, she answered, “”I love working for children because they are a very critical and very thankful public.”