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.

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

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.