‘What Cinderella suffered from, the two sisters and her stepmother, how she grew into a fairy princess, here is seen, told by a pair of scissors on a screen.’ Those poetic words provide the introduction to Lotte Reiniger’s 1922 animated short Cinderella, ‘a fairy film in shadow show’. Her silent classic, featured in the BFI’s terrific new retrospective of her work, is a wonderfully expressionistic film that begins with the silhouette of a pair of hands cutting out Cinderella’s shape from a piece of black paper, breathing life and grace into the figure of the princess.
Born in Berlin in 1899, Reiniger was captivated by shadow puppets from an early age. Though she initially studied acting with the theatre director Max Reinhardt, she became involved with the Berliner Institut fí¼r Kulturforschung, an experimental animation studio, while in her early 20s. There, she began turning her silhouette art, inspired by the shadow plays popular in China and Indonesia, into short films based on fairy tales, many from the Brothers Grimm.
One of the most notable silent films from her time in Berlin, featured in the collection, is The Death-Feigning Chinaman (1928). There is real beauty in the shape of the pagodas and lanterns that form the backdrop for the satirical story about the drunken Ping Pong, a favourite of the Chinese Emperor who stumbles from one mishap to another. As with the wicked stepsisters in Cinderella, Reiniger creates fabulous caricatures out of paper, depicting her characters with an almost grotesque exaggeration that mirrors the over-the-top acting in live action silent pictures.
Some of her most visually stunning films are those based on the tales of the Arabian Nights. Aladdin and the Magic Lamp (1954?) is the first film featured in the collection that was made for Primrose Productions, a company established by her husband Carl Koch with fellow émigrés (who, like Reiniger, had left Germany for England in the 1930s). She beautifully renders the opulence of ancient Baghdad, with its mosques and minarets, while creating wonderfully intricate, cut-paper clothes for the Princess Dinarzade. Her flowing silhouettes are set against atmospheric watercolour backgrounds, used to great effect in creating a sense of drama as Aladdin fights his way back to the princess.
Her Sleeping Beauty (1953-54) is the perfect counterpoint to the idealised, sentimental Disney film released a few years later in 1959. There is an elegance in the silhouettes that is unmatched by more conventional animation, and a real sense of darkness in the tortuous thorns that smother Beauty’s home as she falls under the evil spell cast by a wicked fairy. Reiniger is equally evocative in depicting the natural world, crafting beautifully stylised landscapes in films like Snow White and Rose Red (also a more traditional telling of the Brothers Grimm tale than Disney’s distorted version).