Vancouver Biennale screening classic Lotte Reiniger animated film

New short documentary, Lotte that Silhouette Girl, also pays tribute to filmmaker in CineFest Live series

Vancouver Biennale CineFest Live: Pioneers in Cinema Film Series, Mondays, 8:30 p.m., until Sept. 3, at Leg-in-Boot Square. Outdoor screenings are free of admission and start at 8:30 p.m. (dusk). Reiniger films scheduled for Aug. 20.

Through millennia during which fairy tales, in their retelling, became ever more refined, they came to convey overt and covert meanings at the same time; came to speak simultaneously to all levels of the human personality . . . . fairy tales carry important messages to the conscious, the preconscious and the unconscious mind, on whatever level these states are functioning.” - Bruno Bettelheim, “The Uses of Enchantment.”

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On Aug. 20, the Vancouver Biennale will screen German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger’s animated feature, Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed/The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), as part of their CineFest Live: Pioneers in Cinema Film Series. The evening will open with a new animated short documentary, Lotte That Silhouette Girl, about Reiniger. As the filmmakers, Carla Patullo and Elizabeth Beecherl, say in a teaser for their work: “Once upon a time, a young German artist changed the world of animation with shadows, light, and a pair of magical scissors. Her name was Lotte.”

The silhouette films of Reiniger have their origins in the shadow dramas (Wayang Kulit) of Java. The basic techniques she employed were used thousands of years ago in the religious rites of animistic cultures in Southeast Asia. The shadow theatre is thought to have developed out of prehistoric rituals in which ancestors of a tribe were contacted through the medium of shadow figures.

The earliest forms of Javanese theatre were Wayang Kulit and Wayang Beber (paper-scroll play). The Wayang Kulit was performed by a dalang (master performer) who spoke all dialogue and manipulated flat puppets, made of buffalo hide, before a large white screen. A light source overhead cast shadows of the puppets against the screen. The performance was accompanied by music and included many instruments found in a modern gamelan ensemble. Knowledge of Wayang became widespread: royalty patronized the theatre commissioning court performances and the public witnessed the productions on religious occasions. Performances began in the early evening hours and lasted, uninterrupted, until daylight.

Originally the plays were performed for all-male audiences, only later were women permitted to attend and only if they sat on the non-shadow side of the screen with the dalang, separated from the men. The puppets, up to this time, had been solely used for throwing shadows. For the amusement of the new audience on the other side of the screen they were gilded and painted.

Muslim influence during the 13th to 17th centuries created further changes: the Hindu-Javanese converted to Islam, making it a sin to create figures in the image of “man.” Puppets were given exaggerated characteristics to lessen human resemblance. Arabic literature was introduced into the region and was incorporated into the theatre’s dramatic material. In the preceding centuries, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, translated from Sanskrit epic cycles, had provided major themes for enactment.

Wayang Beber was essentially the same as Wayang Kulit, but with the added dimension of a movable backscreen. Motion was produced by rolling the screens along a wooden bar, creating a sort of primitive film.

The shadow theatre was introduced into Europe during the Rococo period. From the middle of the 17th century on it became known to Europeans as “Chinese shadows” or “Ombres chinoises.” They made one significant change from the original shadow theatre - the wires controlling the puppets were hidden whereas the Wayang displayed the controls openly.

Reiniger was born in Berlin on June 2, 1899 and began cutting out silhouettes “as soon as I could hold a pair of scissors,” she told Paul Gelder in a 1980 Sight & Sound article. Her family encouraged her to continue and much was made of her creations. Fascinated with drama she constructed her own theatre and stage plays with her silhouettes. She studied briefly at the studio of Max Reinhardt in 1917, where Paul Wegener, one of the pioneers of German Expressionist cinema, first saw her work.

Wegener hired Reiniger to cut out the silhouette intertitles for each reel of The Pied Piper of Hamelin (Der Rattenfanger von Hameln). He also introduced her to Hans Cuerlis, head of the Institut für Kultur Forschung (Institute for Cultural Research). The studio gave Reiniger the opportunity to make her first short silhouette film, Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens (The Ornament of the Enamoured Heart), in 1919. This film was quickly followed by several others some of which were used in advertising.

Louis Hagen, a German banker, visited the Institute in 1923 (the same year Reiniger married Carl Koch) and, like Wegener, was impressed with the artistry of her silhouette cut-outs. Hagen proposed financing the production of a full-length silhouette film. Reiniger says, in Experimental Animation: “This was a never-heard of thing. Animated films were supposed to make people roar with laughter, and nobody dared to entertain an audience with them for more than 10 minutes. Everybody to whom we talked in the industry about the proposition was horrified.”

The first German animated film, Die Suppe, was made by Julius Pinschewer in 1911. Although little production was done between 1914 and 1918, German animation had developed considerably by the early 1920s. Innovative work was being done by Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter in their Absoluter Film (Absolute Films). Their search for a system of abstract forms had ultimately led them to motion pictures. They initially worked separately, but met through Tristan Tzara and the Zurich Dada group. Eggeling and Richter found common ground in music and usually explained their ideas in musical terms. They made several films before Eggeling’s death in 1925 and their work (along with that of Leger and Duchamp) “constitute the central works of the initial graphic cinema,” according to P. Adams Sitney in his Visionary Film.

Walter Ruttmann worked along similar lines (vision-music) in his films, Opus Series I-IV (1921-1924). He also made short abstract films for advertising purposes, which was a much more lucrative outlet for animators. To meet the time demands of the market, a division of labour was necessary making assembly-line methods common practice in the production of publicity films. Reiniger adopted this means of organization in the making of Prince Achmed.

Hagen wanted the film made outside of the Institute and set up Reiniger, Koch and Berthold Bartosch (who’d worked on all of Reiniger’s previous films) in a studio over his garage in Potsdam, outside Berlin. Ruttmann, Alexander Kardan and Walter Türck joined them there, completing the production crew. Reiniger felt intimidated by her “serious” collaborators and was “bashful” of suggesting the stories from The Thousand and One Nights as raw material for the script of their film.


". . . . Distant Narcissus send you their honey / For your feasts, from distant ages / come lights as at the firmament / But you walk in exile, alone and discontent.

The beautiful plot, adored by my heart / is a bitter cage to you / And in your salvation will never come the bride - queen of the labyrinth / For the strange taste of good and evil / your mouth is too capricious / You are the ultimate fable / a hundred corymbs of single lonesome flower  . . . . ”

- Elsa Morante, “Alibi” (1959)


Reiniger’s preoccupation with fables is similar to the work of Danish author Isak Dinesen (the pen name of Karen Blixen). Dinesen saw art and dreams as analogous states and wrote: “I move in a world deeply and sweetly familiar to me, a world which belongs to me and to which I myself belong more intensely than is ever the case in my waking existence.” Dinesen made many allusions to The Thousand and One Nights in her work and her biographer Donald Hannah, in The Mask and the Reality, even compares her “intricate technique as a storyteller” to the art of Scheherazade. Both Reiniger and Dinesen created elaborate fantasy worlds as children. At 17, Dinsen wrote (posthumously published) a play for marionettes, The Revenge of Truth, and in doing so must have come very close to a world peopled with Reiniger’s silhouettes. Both women in their work sustain an element of detachment from actual surroundings. Reiniger’s bashful reluctance to see herself as equal to her collaborators, manages to obscure insight into her working environment but photographs of the time always show her as the only woman in a room full of men.

Reiniger wrote in her how-to book, Shadow Theatres and Shadow Films, that when considering material for a production it is wise to choose stories not possible with live actors. The shadow theatre presents all characters on the same level, enabling her to include as many non-human figures as she wishes. Kitab Alf laila wa-laila (Book of the Thousand and One Nights), suited her requirements perfectly. The stories have gone through many transformations, first appearing as literature in the Persian language, but similarities with tales of Sudanese and Indian origin suggest much earlier origins. From the Persian they were translated into Arabic and as the tales were passed along new ones were added to the canon. The first European edition of the tales was published in French by Antoine Galland in the 18th century. The 1841 translation into English omitted tales which (translator Edward William Lane) thought were unfit for a European public. That Reiniger saw the tales as a starting point for her film is not surprising considering its past history.

The elaborate trick-table used for Prince Achmed was very large and took up most of the space in the attic studio. It was made of thick wooden beams, anchored to the ceiling and floor, looking very much like a four-poster bed. The camera was set up at the top of the structure and held in place by steel supports fixed to the wooden beams. There were five layers of glass plates which could be used simultaneously for superimpositions.

During production Reiniger was responsible for the movement on the lower glass plates. The basic action field was very low, with just enough space underneath for lamps, requiring Reiniger to kneel on an old automobile seat on the floor while she worked off the glass plates. Reiniger’s husband, Carl Koch, produced the film (Comenius-Filmgesellschaft) and operated the camera. Alexander Kardan handled the stop-motion switch and noted the number of frames shot in a production log. On the advice of cameraman Guenther Rittau they used a motor he had designed for stop-motion. Walter Türck assisted with the movement of materials on the upper glass plates.

Reiniger made the silhouette figures out of a combination of cardboard and lead. The figures were divided into limbs with a balanced proportion of each material and fixed together with hinges of fused wire. They were constructed at a standard size of nine inches high but the main characters were made in at least three different sizes with a maximum height of almost two feet. The various sizes were necessary as the camera was stationary and all distancing was done with the cut-outs. A close-up of a character was made by placing a larger figure on a glass plate and modifying the background. The figures representing the Ogress and the African sorcerer resemble those of supernatural beings in a traditional Javanese wayang, as do most of the animals. The princes, princesses and flying horse follow more of a Reiniger/European outline.

Walter Ruttmann was responsible for special abstract fantasy effects and the composition of the background movement. He used a wax-slicing machine (invented by animator Oskar Fischlinger) in several scenes. The movable backgrounds were initially created on black and white paper to which he added soap, sand and paint gradually on different layers, sometimes using two negatives.

Composer Wolfgang Zeller wrote an original score for the film. Stop watches were used to synchronize parts of the film with his music. Reiniger would describe to Zeller the type of music needed for a scene and he would write something before it was shot. The film was intended to be shown with a live orchestra performing the music. Conductors were supplied with an illustrated score, which had silhouette figures pasted in over the corresponding notation. The music has not survived and prints use material written by Freddie Philips.

Berthold Bartosch was a frequent collaborator of Reiniger’s. His main contribution on Prince Achmed involved working on Aladdin’s sea journey. The waves for the scene were cut out of transparent paper, a different wave for each shot of the sequence. All wave cutouts were numbered and put on a glass plate, and replaced according to the numbers frame by frame. The figure of Aladdin in a black ship was placed on a clear plate between plates of waves, with the ship following the movements of the wave on the uppermost plate. Bartosch painted with transparent and luminous soap which he applied layer by layer to get the effects he wanted. He used ordinary dampened soap as the only means of light refraction.

Bartosch’s working methods meant that assembly-line efficiency only went so far during the production process. “For years,” (Eric Walter White writes in Walking Shadows), “Bartosch has experimented with waves, making them out of superimposed pieces of semi-transparent tissue paper. These he moves with such consummate skill as to convey the impression of the sea’s natural sway and surge. Moonlit water he depicts by means of silver paper, in this case the waves overlap broadly, and the scene has to be lit from the front.” Koch, as producer, was not happy with the endless experimentation and gave the animator hard deadlines.

Bartosch was also responsible for many of the mechanical devices the crew used on the film which he had developed over the years working with Reiniger. Most of them were customized and made from found materials for specific purposes.

In all, the crew made over 250,000 composite images from which they used about 100,000 for the final print. The production took three years to complete.

Zeller, the composer, arranged the first public screening of the film. He conducted the orchestra at the Volksbühne, a theatre in north Berlin, in a special Sunday morning screening. In Experimental Animation Reiniger says, “We invited the press and all the people we could think of on postcards. As we had led a very remote life during the production, we had not had much contact with the press; our friend Bert Brecht helped us a great deal to invite the right people . . . . we did not think that many people would sacrifice a beautiful morning to see a mysterious, never-heard-of silhouette film in an out-of-the-way theatre. But they all came and the theatre was overcrowded. The film’s initial release included a six-month run in Paris at Louis Jouvet’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

Reiniger and Bartosch made several more films together in the late 1920s. And with her husband, Carl Koch, Reiniger worked on several Jean Renoir films during the 1930s. The French filmmaker was effusive in his praise of her work: “What do you say if you suddenly find yourself in the presence of a Mozart? Especially if this Mozart is a disarming woman, slightly plump and chats like a magpie . . . . She is an artist and her work would be as good if instead of working with film, she had been a painter or a musician. I wish a film could be shot showing her hands during the making of one of her pictures. Her fingers clasping her only tool, scissors, make me think of a graceful classical dancer.”

Later in her long career Reiniger worked in British and American television and also made Aucassin et Nicolette in 1975 for the National Film Board of Canada.

Reiniger made films continuously for over 60 years. That she was a woman/animator was not to her advantage in the recognition sweepstakes. The new animated documentary, Lotte That Silhouette Girl, aims to change that.


Further research:

The Art of Lotte Reiniger

Lotte Reiniger: Shadow Theatres and Shadow Films

Robert Russett and Cecile Starr: Experimental Animation

Bruno Bettelheim: The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales

Donald Hannah: Isak Dinesen and Karen Blixen: The Mask and the Reality

Raymond Durgnat: Jean Renoir

P. Adams Sitney: Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde (1943-2000)






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