The Groundbreaking Silhouette Animations of Lotte Reiniger: Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and More

You can’t talk about the ori­gin of the mod­ern ani­mat­ed film with­out talk­ing about the work of Lotte Reiniger (1899–1981), the Ger­man cre­ator of some 40 ani­mat­ed films between the 1910s and the 70s. And you can hard­ly talk about Reiniger’s work with­out talk­ing about the enchant­i­ng art of shad­ow pup­petry, which we most­ly asso­ciate with tra­di­tion­al cul­tures like that of Indone­sia, but which also inspired her ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry inno­va­tions in ani­ma­tion.

This may sound quite obscure, espe­cial­ly when put up against the Dis­ney and Pixar extrav­a­gan­zas in the­aters today, but all these forms of enter­tain­ment draw, in a sense, from a com­mon well: the fairy tale.

The cre­ators of today’s mega-bud­get ani­mat­ed films know full well the endur­ing val­ue of fairy tales, and so con­tin­ue to adapt their basic sto­ry mate­r­i­al, lay­er­ing on both the lat­est visu­al effects and smirk­ing gags with up-to-the-minute ref­er­ences in order to keep the obvi­ous enter­tain­ment val­ue high. But Indone­sian shad­ow pup­pet the­ater has been doing the same thing for cen­turies and cen­turies, con­vert­ing ancient folk­tales into an evening’s (albeit often a long evening’s) musi­cal enter­tain­ment for audi­ences of era after new era. And Reiniger, in her day, revived the old­est Euro­pean sto­ries with tech­nol­o­gy once as strik­ing and cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly cut­ting-edge as today’s most advanced CGI.

You can watch Reiniger’s 1922 adap­ta­tion of Cin­derel­la at the top of the post. “Nobody else has defined a form of ani­ma­tion as author­i­ta­tive­ly as she did,” writes Dan North of Spec­tac­u­lar Attrac­tions, “and the open­ing sec­tion, where scis­sors make the first cuts into the main char­ac­ter, con­jur­ing her out of sim­ple raw mate­ri­als, dis­plays the means by which the sto­ry is fab­ri­cat­ed and marks it out as a prod­uct of her labour.” Below that, we have a lat­er work, 1955’s Hansel and Gre­tel, an exam­ple of her fur­ther devel­oped tech­nique, and just above you’ll find that same year’s Däumelinchen, also known as Thum­be­li­na.

To get a clear­er sense of exact­ly what went into these shorts (or into 1926’s The Adven­tures of Prince Achmed, her only fea­ture-length film, and first ful­ly ani­mat­ed fea­ture in the his­to­ry of cin­e­ma), watch the sev­en­teen-minute doc­u­men­tary “The Art of Lotte Reiniger” just above. “No one else has tak­en a spe­cif­ic ani­ma­tion tech­nique and made it so utter­ly her own,” writes the British Film Insti­tute’s Philip Kemp, “to date she has no rivals, and for all prac­ti­cal pur­pos­es the his­to­ry of sil­hou­ette ani­ma­tion begins and ends with Reiniger” — but the way she breathed life into her mate­r­i­al lives on.

You can find Reiniger’s films added to our list of Free Ani­mat­ed Films, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Tur­tur­ro Reads Ita­lo Calvino’s Ani­mat­ed Fairy Tale, “The False Grand­moth­er”

Watch Ani­ma­tions of Oscar Wilde’s Children’s Sto­ries “The Hap­py Prince” and “The Self­ish Giant”

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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