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…

Lotte Reiniger’s Cinderella (1922)

Cinderella (Lotte Reiniger, 1922)

One of the first films by the silhouette animator Lotte Reiniger was Cinderella (1922). Fairy stories comprise much of Reiniger’s output, most notably in the 15 shorts she made in the UK between 1953 and 1955. Her Cinderella (she made another version in 1954) is quite a faithful, if fleeting adaptation of the story, but its form and style are extraordinary.

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It all begins with a pair of scissors cutting out Cinderella from a piece of black card before placing her into the world of the story. In many shots, the action is vignetted by jagged edges, reminding us of the sharp edges that have crafted the materials of this tale. Animation is already well suited to fairy tales, which have provided story material for Reiniger, Jiří Trnka, Ladislas Starevich, Ray Harryhausen, Jan Švankmajer and that Disney bloke (Disney also released a cartoon of Cinderella in 1922, and a feature film of the same story in 1950, four years before Reiniger’s own remake). Animation allows the construction of a completely fabricated fantasy space that is bracketed off from the real world, evoking the enclosures of memory and imagination (though I might argue that Disney’s approach was less to do with evoking the imaginative and ephemeral experience of fairytales, and more about reshaping those tales in order to fit into the house style of his company). Animated figures provide archetypal rather than definitive renderings of fairytale characters, and particularly in Reiniger’s monochromatic stories, the images allow space for the viewer’s imagination to fill in the gaps. Her silhouettes make the gestures of the characters and carry out the actions that comprise each tale, but they are a partial conjuration, a world into which we peer rather than disappear. This is not meant to sound like an insult to Reiniger; her films are evocative and engrossing without pretending to present a definitive reading of the fairy tales. The shadows seem more like the ghostly accretion of many different versions pushing to the surface of memory.

Lotte Reiniger's Cinderella (1922)

On the other hand, Reiniger inscribes the film with her distinctive signature. Nobody else has defined a form of animation as authoritatively as she did, and the opening section, where scissors make the first cuts into the main character, conjuring her out of simple raw materials, displays the means by which the story is fabricated and marks it out as a product of her labour. Just as any storyteller provides an introduction that bridges the gap between the real and story worlds, so Reiniger draws us in by showing how she brings her figures to life. The power of enchantment exerted by the tale is also the power of an animator. That perfect fit between subject matter and form might go some way to explaining why so many animators have made fairy tale films.

In illustration of this final point, but mainly because I’m proud that I managed to time the frame grab just right, here’s a shot from her subsequent short, The Death-feigning Chinaman (1928), in which Reiniger’s hand is accidentally caught on camera, a blink-of-an-eye imprint of the animator that reminds us of her presence as the vivifying force operating in the interstices between the frames of the film itself:

Lotte Reiniger The Death-feigning Chinaman