Lotte Reiniger’s Sure Hands

Conjuring the Arabian Nights in The Adventures of Prince Achmed

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On the morning of Sunday May 2, 1926, a frantic Carl Koch scoured the streets of Berlin looking for a replacement projector lens. Back at the Volksbuehne theater, he had left behind house conductor Wolfgang Zeller and his orchestra, a cluster of literati invited by budding playwright Bertolt Brecht, and a standing-room-only crowd of spectators trying to pass off coat-check stubs as seat tickets. The filmmaking team, which included special effects wizards Walther Ruttmann and Berthold Bartosch, technical assistants Alexander Kardan and Walther Türck, and 27-year-old director Lotte Reiniger, nervously awaited Koch’s return. As it was Sunday, all the photography shops were closed. So Koch, cameraman, producer, and Reiniger’s husband, ended up at Ufa studios, where, serendipitously, someone with a key passed by. Projector lens now in hand, Koch took a cab back to the theater, where the first screening of The Adventures of Prince Achmed, three years in the making, could finally begin.

Surprisingly, the idea to make a feature-length animated film had not come from the filmmakers themselves. Because of spiraling inflation in the Weimar Republic, money was best spent as quickly as possible. Banker Louis Hagen, who had invested in a stash of film stock, was looking to shelter more of his rapidly devaluing cash. During a visit to the Institute for Culture Research, which sponsored Reiniger’s first animated films, Hagen saw a young woman cutting out silhouettes, and he asked her if a feature-length silhouette film was possible.

Since the end of the first World War, German cinema had regained its reputation for quality by producing prestigious films by directors like F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Ernst Lubitsch. Yet, another strand of cinema, with roots in the art world, was emerging simultaneously. Before the war, avant-garde artists had rejected the constrictions of art institutions. Postwar Germany nurtured this new crop of artists who embraced abstract art, folk art, and the value of working outside the academy. Cinema, with its lack of antecedents, was attractive to these many forward-thinking artists and they began to explore the canvas of the film strip as an extension of painting. Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter animated their abstract scroll paintings in the early 1920s. Architectural student and painter Walther Ruttmann produced his Lichtspiel Opus films, in which shapes and colors morphed in time to live, original musical scores.

Lotte Reiniger embodied the credo of the new age: a self-taught artist skilled in the ancient folk art of shadow plays who was excited by the prospect of cinema. Born June 2, 1899, she mastered silhouettes as a child, entertaining the family with Shakespeare shadow plays in the living room. “I could cut out silhouettes almost as soon as I could manage to hold a pair of scissors,” she wrote in 1936. “I could paint, too, and read and recite; but these things did not surprise anyone very much. But everybody was astonished about the scissor cuts.”

She convinced her parents to send her to Max Reinhardt’s drama school, where, if she wasn’t performing, she could be found crafting silhouettes of the actors’ performances, which cast shadows backstage. Paul Wegener (the actor-director maybe best known for his versions of Der Golem), noticed her unusual talent and invited the 19-year-old to make titles for his film, The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1918). She learned about animation by assisting with the stop-motion filming of the wooden rats that were used in place of the original cast of unruly live guinea pigs. On the set of Die Galeerensträfling (The Gallery Slave, 1919), in which Reiniger played a small part, Wegener introduced her to some artists who were starting a trick film studio, “Help me get rid of this mad silhouette girl,” he joked to Carl Koch and Berthold Bartosch, who went on to help her make six short silhouette films at the Institute for Culture Research.

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When Hagen first approached her about a feature-length animated film, she was eager but cautious, recognizing that animation had thus far been limited to ten-minute comedies. She chose to adapt stories from A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, fantastical tales of the Orient that had re-captivated Europe since the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. “Those were the days,” Reiniger recalled years later, “with each new film we could make new discoveries … The whole field was virgin soil and we had all the joys of explorers in an unknown country.” Hagen installed the team above his garage in Potsdam and they spent the next three years photographing 250,000 individual images on a multi-plane camera designed specifically for the film.

One frame at a time, Reiniger adjusted the moving parts of her silhouette puppets. The multi-plane camera, operated by Carl Koch, sat atop two layers of glass tables, with a strong backlight at the bottom to give the images depth. One frame at a time, Reiniger manipulated the moving parts of her elaborate silhouette puppets, cut from black cardboard and joined by wire hinges. She studied human and animal movements to make her characters as expressive as possible. The background artists experimented with effects of their own. Bartosch created ocean waves and starlit skies with sand, soap, and transparent cutouts, and Ruttmann used wax to conjure the flying horse and for other magical transformations. As the camera was stationary, larger silhouettes and scaled backgrounds also had to be built for medium shots or close-ups. A total of 96,000 frames were culled from the filming then edited together.

By the time Prince Achmed premiered that day in May, German cinema luminaries like Lubistch and Murnau had already answered Hollywood’s siren call. The avant-garde, seduced by the French Dadaists and Surrealists, were flocking to Paris. Reiniger stayed in Berlin, working with Koch as her producer on short silhouette films. After the rise of the National Socialists in 1933, Reiniger and Koch tried unsuccessfully to get permanent visas elsewhere in Europe. Reiniger took jobs in London, where she worked for the famed GPO (General Post Office) film unit. In Paris, she created a fantasy sequence for G.W. Pabst’s Don Quichotte (1933), and made a shadow play for Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1938). Eventually the couple was evacuated back to Berlin, where they managed to survive the war. The original negative of Prince Achmed, however, did not—it was destroyed in the Battle of Berlin in 1945. When Reiniger and Koch were finally granted asylum by England in 1949, they left behind all her other films as well.

For her entire career, Reiniger never strayed from silhouettes. Mozart’s The Magic Flute, fables by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, all became animated silhouettes under Reiniger’s quick scissors. She wrote books on shadow plays, illustrated an edition of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, directed shadow-play sequences for the ballet, and taught animation. In 1980, she made her last film, in Germany, where she had returned the year before. She died one year later, at the age of 82. The Adventures of Prince Achmed comes to us today through a negative saved in England, as does a piece of Reiniger herself. In single frames, one 45 minutes into the film and the other 53 minutes in, you can catch a glimpse of the shadow of Reiniger’s sure hands.

— Shari Kizirian © 2008

Originally published by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in July 2008. Reprinted in November 2015 by Fandor.

Author: silentshari

Archive of my published articles no longer found at their original internet address

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