The characters in this little comedy have no real existence. They have been designed and cut out of a sheet of black paper and are made to move on backgrounds lit from below and photographed from above. This brief explanation is not offered as an apology for their lack of life but to make you marvel that they have so much.
– Intertitle from Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Dr. Dolittle (1928)
The German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger may have used simple techniques – manually crafting figures from card using a small pair of hand scissors – but the films compiled on a new British Film Institute DVD commemorating her work are highly sophisticated. The aforementioned preface to her three-part telling of Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle is a necessary reminder that the audience is in fact watching nothing more than inanimate sheets of paper; yet the physical characterisations, especially evident in the Dr. Dolittle shorts, are irresistibly enchanting. Each animal in the doctor’s menagerie has its own defined personality. When Dr. Dolittle’s boat runs into trouble en route to Africa, the jolly, chattering duck is unfazed as he retrieves the doctor’s top hat from the ocean waves, while the chubby, hesitant pig is too scared to jump ship and seeks a piggyback ride to shore. The monkeys that Dr. Dolittle’s band encounter on arriving at their destination are equally characterful. They appear as complex and individual as if Reiniger had employed the very best live-action character actors or placed her camera in a cage at the zoo. In fact, Reiniger was at such pains to get each movement right that she spent hours at the Tiergarten in Berlin, physically imitating the animals’ movements to ensure that the swing of an arm or a flap of a wing rang true.
After painstaking research, the paper cut-outs were manoeuvred by sheets of lead, and it is this manual manipulation that lends the animations their charm and almost truer-than-life vitality. While each sequence is carefully constructed frame-by-frame, there is a hint of unpredictability in the gesture of a silhouette’s hand or the nod of its head, which mirrors the irregularity of life. The potential for error stands in contrast to today’s computer-generated smoothness and, in some respects, viewing Reiniger’s animation after years of steady 3-D releases, the figures appear to possess even more of that marvellous ‘life’ which made Reiniger so proud.
As difficult as it might be to remember that these on-screen figures are mere sheets of paper, it is also hard to appreciate that the DVD’s central masterpiece, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), is the oldest surviving animated feature film. In some ways, it is easy to recognise this work as an early example of filmmaking. There is the evident influence of mechanical magic lantern slides (the camera is still as silhouettes are manually moved across brightly-lit glass plates), and hints of vaudeville theatre, with the sequences of acrobatic physical comedy, as well as the division of the narrative into separate acts. Yet, in other ways, it is extraordinary that the first feature-length animation should display such technical skill and advanced visual storytelling. Unusually for a silent film, Reiniger worked with the film’s composer Wolfgang Zeller from the beginning, and turned the film’s score on rollers while animating her puppets to ensure that the sound and action was perfectly in sync. This emphasis on rhythm demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the artistic possibilities of abstract filmmaking, while there is an inventiveness with painted backdrops that foreshadows the work of Len Lye and Norman McLaren. Indeed, the film was popular in European avant-garde circles.
Although she was an early pioneer in the medium, Reiniger was fully alive to the potential of animation to portray the fantastical and unreal. The recurring motif of flight (the flight of the Sorcerer’s magical horse, the flight of Peri Banu’s winged cloak and the flight of the avenging demons) displays this preference for make-believe and imagination in Reiniger’s work as she weaves together different magical stories from One Thousand and One Nights to create a single coherent narrative. Reiniger was quite clearly a natural storyteller, as evidenced by her 1972 essay printed in the accompanying DVD notes. She does not focus on her technical abilities or role as director, but rather places Prince Achmed as the central hero in the filmmaking process (‘one day he was thrown out of his comfortable existence by a film company which wanted to employ him… for an animated film’). In fact, Reiniger is so skilful at telling complex stories with simple silhouettes and sparse intertitles that I found myself preferring the version of The Adventures of Prince Achmed without the newly recorded English-translation narration. Without the spoken word, the beautiful images can sing even louder.
Fairy tales, Biblical parables and folk tales all feature in Reiniger’s films, and her animations display a preference for strongly moral narratives where the ‘good’ are honoured for their behaviour. While this straightforward morality might seem a little old-fashioned to modern audiences – especially combined with female characters who wait to be saved by dashing heroes and a certain preoccupation with the exotic ‘other’ – Reiniger’s films do not feel like relics from a distant past. The existence of dark forces cleverly counterbalances any sentimental tendencies. In The Star of Bethlehem (1956), Reiniger even ensures that the story of the nativity has a strong sinister aspect with the inclusion of devils rushing to obstruct the Magi in the desert; it was so strong, in fact, that censors cut the sequence when the film was aired on American television, in case it frightened the film’s young audience. Reiniger was also adept at puncturing serious action with moments of well-placed humour. In The Flying Coffer (1921), the tragic tale of the Chinese princess imprisoned in the pagoda is subverted by a moment of slapstick comedy as her two suitors collide with each other while trying to scale the tower. In an early cosmetics commercial, The Secret of the Marquise (1922), Reiniger undermines the beauty of her heroines by revealing the artifice behind appearances. We see a fashionable 18th-century French woman seated at her toilette as her suitor asks, ‘Graceful, beautiful woman, tell me which god gave you such allure?’ The answer brings the audience to earth with a bump: ‘Nivea Soap and Nivea Cream.’
Reiniger may reveal deception in physical beauty in The Secret of the Marquise, but there is no denying the delicate exquisiteness of her own animations. Even with the knowledge that the figures are made from simple pieces of cards and tricks of light, there is a magical splendour to her animations. When Dr. Dolittle premiered at the Alhambra in Berlin, a sequence where the doctor’s ship travels over moonlit water caused spontaneous applause, and I believe the impact of these stunning visuals has not diminished in the slightest since that initial screening. Any fan of film and animation should make sure that they watch these films, not only as they are important works in the history of cinema, but because they provide a rare, luminous beauty, which will transport you right up into the sky with the Sorcerer’s magic horse.
Watch Lotte Reiniger’s The Secret of the Marquise commercial:
Watch a clip from The Adventures of Prince Achmed: