Johann Wolfgang von Goethe — the very name bespeaks literary mastery of the widest range. Not only did this best-known of all eighteenth- and – nineteenth-century German writers reach into poetry, the novel, the memoir, autobiography, criticism, science, philosophy, and even politics, but he did a bit of interpretation of classic folktales as well. The Faust and Sorrows of Young Werther author wrote a particularly lasting rendition of the adventures of Reynard the Fox, a trickster from medieval European myth. Had Goethe himself lived into the 20th century to experience the golden age of puppet animation, I feel certain his artistic mandate would have compelled him to film a version of The Tale of the Fox. Alas, the literary legend passed away in 1832, leaving the job, nearly a century later, to Russian animator Ladislas Starevich (also spelled Wladyslaw Starewicz).
Having pioneered the form of puppet animation with his 1912 film The Beautiful Lukanida, Starevich remains well-known among animation enthusiasts for shooting his pictures with animals playing the protagonists, or bugs, or seemingly whatever he happened to have at hand. The Tale of the Fox, by contrast, presented him with a comparatively vast set of resources. Produced in Paris over eighteen months in 1929 and 1930, the 65-minute animated feature, Starevich’s first and only the sixth ever made in the world at the time, tells the story of Reynard the Fox’s attempts to live his life of tomfoolery even as the lion king of this animal kingdom struggles to bring him to justice. When, seven years after completing photography, the film still lacked music, Germany’s National Socialist government, no doubt swollen with their version of Teutonic pride at seeing an adaptation of an adaptation penned by a German icon, provided a score and arranged for a Berlin premiere. But try not to think about that. Concentrate instead on the animation style used here by Starevich which, though he shot in stop-motion and used puppets, surely resembles no stop-motion animation or puppet show you’ve ever seen.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.