Fragment #35: Rudolf Arnheim on Lotte Reiniger

It is not easy to make fairy tales come alive for the eye as well as the ear, because the magic power with which children imagine what is told them is too easily paralysed by every image they see. Even the witchcraft of the film hardly ever matches the superior buoyancy of youthful imagination; in the pretty fairy tale films by Starewicz, the artistically constructed animals have something frighteningly robotic about them: they are uncanny, sleepwalking little machines. Lotte Reiniger utilises the ideal technique, the silhouette film. The silhouette is not as close to reality as a three-dimensional thing, no matter how imaginatively it may be thought out. It thus spares the viewer, particularly the child viewer, the fear that sets in when the fairy tale passes a certain point of vividness and becomes tangible reality. The moveable silhouette charmingly maintains the right balance between the product of art and life; we believe it enough to be enthralled, and we do not believe it enough to get the goose bumps we get when experiencing the supernatural.

Lotte Reiniger films Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle, developing an incredibly expressive outline as she goes. The swinging link chain that forms a tall Negro prince, the little velvet ball that rolls across the screen as Doctor Dolittle or his lazy piglet, the grotesque disproportionateness of a giraffe’s body and the slender elegance of a sparrow – the plucky scissors cut lively curves in the black paper, and living beings arise in pleasingly rounded, elegant forms. Everything is caricatured, but with so much sensitivity to the real nature of each creature that the accentuation never becomes a distortion.

When we keep in mind that the artist never sees one movement during the shooting, but moves limb for limb millimetre by millimetre on her animating table, and that every gesture must be pieced together from a hundred individual little pictures in one long process, it is almost unbelievable to behold how, when the work of months of patience flies by in seconds on-screen, every figure acts just right. The apes swing from the branches, the duck waddles, hurried and plump, the lion, a pompous heraldic animal, proudly sways his behind, the wave sprays, and the snow falls softly to the ground. It must be a very happy feeling for Lotte Reiniger, similar to when a musician hears his mute-born child for the first time, to see the unwieldy piece of carton – laboriously patched together with wires, and without the guidance of a human hand – dancing lively, amazing dances up on the screen, full of life as nature itself, and yet bound by the gracious style of her most charming personal designs.

Rudolf Arnheim (1928) Film Essays and Criticism. p.141-2.

1 thought on “Fragment #35: Rudolf Arnheim on Lotte Reiniger

  1. Wow ! What great commentary, especially the line that reads …. the magic power with which children imagine what is told them is too easily paralysed by every image they see. This in itself could be an entire topic. What great observation, what great thought, what great analysis.

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