Picture of the Week #62: The Diehl Puppets

[Princess Puppet from Die Sieben Raben, Diehl Brothers Collection, Frankfurt.]

Sorry, dear readers – I’ve been stringing you along with little more than pictures-of-the-week this year. Normal service will be resumed shortly. I have a very packed publishing schedule this year, which will take up a lot of my time, but will also produce a lot of notes with which I can feed my blog. In the meantime, I promised some photographs of the Diehl brothers’ puppets, which I viewed in one of the archives of the Deutsches-Filmmuseum, at Rödelheim, Frankfurt last week. After watching a selection of the Diehl films at the Wiesbaden archive (thankyou to Michael Schurig and Jochen Enders for technical assistance at the Steenbeck, and for their excellent interpretations of the dialogue), I had the pleasure of handling the puppets themselves. It was a real thrill to pull them out of their archival hibernation. They’re beautifully preserved and carefully stored, but they don’t get out much, and are likely to remain in their boxes for the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t want to make the case that the Diehls’ films are all neglected masterpieces, but there is enough distinctive artistry there to justify further study. In particular, the lighting and camera movement they achieve is truly extraordinary, and the faces of their puppets are unusually expressive, thanks to their patented replacement animation techniques.

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Picture of the Week #61: Die Sieben Raben

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I’m currently on a research trip in Germany. A couple of days ago I was watching films by the Diehl brothers in a Frankfurt archive (and waiting for more DVDs in the post), and the next day I was in another archive handling and photographing the actual puppets used in the films. I’m planning an article about the brothers, about whom very little has been written in English, but I’ve come away to Germany without the necessary cable to connect camera to computer and give you a little preview of some of the amazing objects I’ve been looking at. In place of the actual evidence, I present a little slideshow of shots from one of the brothers’ greatest achievements, Die Sieben Raben. Released in 1937, just a fortnight before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in the US, it follows the traditional folk-tale (written down by the Brothers Grimm) of a young girl who discovers that she once had seven brothers, but with major revisions. Their father had sent them to fetch baptismal water from the well for the newborn girl, and when they accidentally broke the pail and were too scared to return home, their father cursed them and wished they were transformed into ravens. Nature obliged, and the boys changed into birds and flew away. Now, years later, the girl is wracked with guilt that her brothers were outcast on her behalf, and sets out on an arduous journey to find them.

In the sequence shown in these images, she wanders the countryside in search of her brothers, and meets a fairy, who promises her that if she can remain silent for seven years, and spin seven shirts from her golden hair, the curse will be lifted. It’s a stunningly beautiful sequence, slow and measured, with poignant focus on the woodland surroundings in which the girl will sit and mutely go about her selfless trials. The Diehls were experts at lighting their miniature sets, and because the puppets were quite large, there was plenty of space to move cameras through and around them and create a strong sense of depth and distance. The rest of the film is not quite this fine, but it’s a sadly neglected animated feature that never really got the recognition it deserved, even in its own time. When I get back, I’ll show you some pictures of puppets…