image by Lotte Reiniger
Essay by William Moritz
via Animation World Network
Lotte Reiniger, when mentioned at all, is most often brushed off in a single sentence noting that she apparently made a feature-length silhouette film in 1926, The Adventures of Prince Achmed; but since that was in Germany, and silhouettes aren’t cartoons, Disney still invented the feature-length animated film with Snow White. Anyone who has seen Prince Achmed wouldn’t be convinced by this reasoning, but, alas, only a tiny fraction of the people who see Snow White ever get to see any Reiniger film at all. Few of her nearly 70 films are readily available–and almost none of them in excellent prints; when Reiniger fled Germany to England in the 1930s, she was not able to bring her original negatives with her, so most modern prints are copies of copies, which have lost much of the fine detail, especially in backgrounds.
More than just noting that Reiniger’s Prince Achmed, begun in 1923 and released in 1926, was a pioneer feature-length animated film, one must proclaim that it is a brilliant feature, a wonderful film full of charming comedy, lyrical romance, vigorous and exciting battles, eerie magic, and truly sinister, frightening evil. Our current prints of Prince Achmed were “restored” in 1954 with a new (rather kitschy) musical score by Freddie Phillips, which means that the images move faster than they should (18 frames-per-second silent speed versus 24 frames-per-second sound speed). The original symphonic score by Wolfgang Zeller, one of the great film composers, more correctly supports the drama with a thrilling grandeur, exciting suspense and lush romanticism. Furthermore, although the “restoration” reestablished the tints of the original, much of the fine background detail in most scenes is lost. (Original nitrate prints are available in Europe, so let’s hope that a more authentic restoration becomes available soon.)
In addition to Prince Achmed, Lotte Reiniger made a second feature, Dr. Dolittle, released in 1928 (unfortunately just as the sound film began to triumph), with a musical score by Paul Dessau, Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith. Following Hugh Lofting’s 1920 book, The Story of Dr. Dolittle, it tells of the good Doctor’s voyage to Africa to help heal sick animals. Again, it is currently available only in a television version with new music, voice-over narration and the images playing too fast.
Lotte Reiniger actually worked on a third feature as well. She loved Maurice Ravel’s 1925 opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges (The Boy and the Bewitched Things), which tells of a naughty child who ruins his schoolbooks and toys, hurts his pets, breaks dishes and furniture and despoils the garden–but all the things he has damaged come to life and accuse him until he repents. Both Colette’s text (the “china” tea set speak the mock Chinese of “Hong Kong, Mah Jong” while the torn arithmetic book sings fragments of math problems) and Ravel’s diverse music (from mock 18th-century shepherdesses, to jazzy fox trots to cat yawls to a symphony of garden sounds) are magical. Lotte tried for seven years to get the rights to the piece–a complex and expensive matter, since Ravel’s music, Colette’s libretto and the particular musical performance (singers, orchestra, etc.) had to be cleared separately. When Ravel died in 1937 the clearance became even more complex, and Lotte finally abandoned the project, although she had designed sequences and animated some scenes to convince potential backers and the rights-holders.
In 1929 Lotte Reiniger had also directed a live-action feature, The Pursuit of Happiness, which involves people who run a shadow-puppet theater in a carnival–and starred Jean Renoir and Bertold Bartosch; unfortunately, it was begun as a silent film, and the attempt to add voices afterward proved disastrous.
A Very Thankful Public
In addition to her feature projects, Lotte animated dozens of shorts for children, and a few delightful advertising films. In a 1969 interview with Walter Schobert (of the Deutsches Film museum in Frankfurt), Reiniger said “I love working for children, because they are a very critical and very thankful public.” She has rewarded her youthful audience with challenging interpretations of classic fairy tales, new stories and some operatic motifs–all of which played successfully in cinemas and on television in the early years before ratings and commercial demands made children’s TV a branch of the toy industry. Lotte also performed with live shadow-puppet performances in England, and wrote a definitive book about Silhouettes.
Lotte Reiniger herself is the prime genius behind all of her films. She had an astonishing facility with cutting–holding the scissors still in her right hand, and manipulating the paper at lightning speed with her left hand so that the cut always went in the right direction. She drew the storyboards and devised the plots and characters, which were closely linked. If a figure needed to make some complex or supple movement, it would have to be built from 25 or 50 separate pieces, then joined together with fine lead wire–as in the famous Falcon that Walter Ruttmann used to make Kriemhilde’s dream sequence for Fritz Lang’s 1924 feature Niebelungen. If a character needed to appear in close-up, a separate, larger model of the head and shoulders would have to be built–as well, possibly, as larger background details to stand behind it. But Lotte worked always with her husband, Carl Koch, who usually ran the camera. For the large projects like Prince Achmed she had a staff of five: Carl for camera, Alexander Kardan to check the exposure sheets, Walter Türck who arranged the backgrounds, and two special-effects men, Walter Ruttmann and Bertold Bartosch; the latter two were animators in their own right, who were able to continue their own careers thanks to the help Lotte gave them with this extra employment.
Even if the prints are not in the best shape, it is worth trying to see as many of her films as you can, for Lotte endowed every tale with enchanting touches and droll social commentaries. The earlier films seem better to me. Carmen (available in the U.S. through New York’s Museum of Modern Art), gives a feminist reappraisal of the opera’s plot, making Carmen a capable and self-sufficient woman, smarter and stronger than the men who pursue her. The later films often have color backgrounds (being originally designed for television in England), the most easily available of them probably the National Film Board of Canada’s Aucassin and Nicolette; the film follows a medieval tale of young lovers separated–and needless to say, it’s Nicolette who is brave and clever enough to get them back together again.
Although not Jewish, Carl Koch and Lotte Reiniger were closely identified with leftist politics (Bert Brecht counted them among their good friends) and deplored the rise of Nazism. They immediately tried to leave Germany in 1933, but were not able to get emigration visas into France, England or other European countries. Lotte worked on a Pabst film in France in 1933, but had to return to Germany, where she made six more films, between frequent “vacations” to England, Greece and other places in search of asylum. In 1936, Carl and Lotte resolved to leave Germany for good, even if it meant a transient existence, which it did. Jean Renoir employed Carl in Paris, while Lotte found some backing for silhouette films in England–but both had to leave the country where they were every few months and re-enter on a new tourist visa, sometimes only meeting in the terminals at Dover and Calais.
With the beginning of the war, Renoir arranged to take them to Italy, where he was contracted to direct a feature, which he soon turned over to Carl when he decided to return to France to salvage some of his father’s paintings (and eventually fled to the US). Carl and Lotte worked on three features and a silhouette animation in Italy before they were evacuated to Germany when the allied armies invaded Italy and the German forces began to retreat in 1944.
Even during the blitz on Berlin (in addition to caring for her aged mother and Carl, who suffered from “shell shock”), Lotte was forced to work on a silhouette film, which was finished after the war by the newly founded East German DEFA studios. Carl and Lotte finally managed to emigrate to England in 1949.