A Tale of Lotte Reiniger


For your reading pleasure today, a delightful anecdote from Lotte Reiniger, still best known for her achingly beautiful silhouette film The Adventures of Prince Ahmed (1926), the oldest surviving animated feature film. In this tale, she talks of her first experience as an animator, working with her idol, Paul Wegener, an actor who had espoused the potential of animation for many years. She joined his acting troupe, the Max Reinhardt Theatre, and managed to get a chance to create title cards for Wegener’s films. Here, she talks about how stop-motion effects came to be selected as the best solution to a production problem on Wegener’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1918), and thus expresses her own passion for the process:

With the invention of cinematography an entirely new kind of puppeteering came into being. This was called animation, which meant giving life to otherwise immovable objects. As you have heard the myths which are supposed to have given birth to the shadow-play, you may like to hear a story about animation also. This is no myth, but the pure truth which I witnessed in the year of 1918 in the town of Bautzen in Germany and which was my first encounter with this new medium when I was a young girl.

Lotte ReinigerAt that time a great pioneer of film-making in Germany was producing a film there of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. This was the famous actor Paul Wegener, who was fascinated by the fantastic possibilities of that medium ‘film’, until then little explored. In his films he used them lavishly, making people vanish, having objects moved by invisible men, and all sorts of other improbable things which could be done by the camera through the medium of trick shots. In this film, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, the famous occasion when the rats which plagued the town of Hamelin were lured out of the town by the piper’s piping, was one of the key scenes. The film was shot in the town of Bautzen and not in Hamelin, for that town offered the more picturesque medival views.

It was Wegener’s idea to have the movement of the rats done with wooden rats, using ‘stop motion’, that means taking only one frame of film at a time, and moving the objects in between. The producing company thought quite rightly that this would take up an enormous amount of time and labour and so it was decided to do the scene with real rats.

A quaint little medieval street was chosen and all the members of the unit (including me) were given a basketful of rats and were hidden in the cellars of the street. Early in the morning the street was cleared of traffic and Wegener in his Pied Piper costume passed along it, piping enticingly. Then a revolver shot was fired, a common practice for distant signals in those days of silent film, whereupon we all opened our baskets and let the rats escape through the cellar windows. And escape they did! None of them thought of following the Pied Piper. They whisked across the road and vanished in an instant. When the scene was projected you could hardly see them at all. In spite of the fact that the Pied Piper, so far from freeing the town of Hamelin from a plague of rats, had infected the town of Bautzen with another, we were not much concerned. we had to think of something else.

Now we took guinea-pigs instead. These poor guinea-pigs were painted grey and were adorned with long tails, and again each of us took a basketful into his cellar. The same scene was repeated, the Piper piped, the shot was fired and the guinea-pigs released through the windows. But unlike the rats, the guinea-pigs did not escape. They, unaware of the script, sat cheerfully down in the middle of the street, played with each other, lost their tails and amused themselves as best they could. But none followed the Pied Piper.

So it had to be wooden rats and stop-motion. We were again hidden in our cellars, loaded with wooden rats this time. The Piper piped, the shot was fired and we put our rats out of the window and withdrew hastily. We came out again, moved our rats a fraction, withdrew again, and doing this from five o’clock in the morning until the sun was setting we really had moved our rats all along the street.

The projection was a triumph. Those rats really moved as erratically as you would expect panicky rats would and they folllowed the Piper all right. But, as we had been busy all day producing this miracle, the shadows of the medieval gables moved along the houses opposite as well. They, too, had been animated. A remedy for this mishap was soon found: a shot was made of clouds, passing the sun, tinted with blue ‘virage’ so that it looked as if it was the moon. This was cut into the scene and added to it a lot of poetic feeling, which was highly praised by one and all.

Lotte Reiniger at workThis was my first encounter with animation, which I will always remember with great tenderness, for it was that film which gave me my first film job, cutting out silhouette titles for each reel. In those days films were projected in reels and the more artistically ambitious pictures adorned the titles for each reel with artistic frames. Furthermore, it was that same Paul Wegener who introduced me to a group of young artists and scientists who were opening up an experimental animation studio and persuaded them to let that silhouette girl make her silhouettes movable so as to make a silhouette cartoon.

[Lotte Reiniger, Shadow Theatres and Shadow Films. London: B.T. Batsford, 1970, 82-84.]

Ladislas Starevich had a similar anecdote about adopting animation due to the insufferable intransigence of animal actors, when he couldn’t get beetles to fight properly. I wonder if it’s a recurring theme for a lot of animators, when creatures that won’t take direction need to be replaced by a manouevrable onscreen proxy.

3 thoughts on “A Tale of Lotte Reiniger

  1. Pingback: The Beautiful Silhouette Animations of Lotte Reiniger | Eaglevisiontimes

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