When Lotte Reiniger began making animation in the late 1910s, her work looked like nothing that had ever been shot on film. In fact, it also resembles nothing else achieved in the realm of cinema in the century since. Even the enormously budgeted and staffed productions of major studios have yet to replicate the stark, quavering charm of her silhouette animations. Those studios do know full well, however, what Reiniger realized long before: that no other medium can more vividly realize the visions of fairy tales. To believe that, one needs only watch her 1922 Cinderella or 1955 Hansel and Gretel, previously featured here on Open Culture.
It was between those productions that Reiniger made the work for which she’s now best remembered: the 1926 One Thousand and One Nights pastiche The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the very first feature in animation history. Nine years later, she turned to source material closer at hand, culturally speaking, and adapted a section of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.
You can watch the result, the ten-minute Papageno, at the top of the post. A bird-catcher, the title character finds one day that all the avians around him have become tiny human females. Though none of them stick around, an ostrich later delivers him a full-size maiden, only for a giant snake to drive her away. Will Papageno defeat the serpent and reclaim his beloved, or submit to despair?
“The magic of the fairy tale has always been her greatest fascination, yet her own interpretations attain a unique quality,” says the narrator of the 1970 documentary short just above, in which Reiniger re-enacts the thoroughly analog and highly labor-intensive making of Papageno. “The figures she cuts out and constructs were originally inspired by the puppets used in traditional Eastern shadow theaters, of which the silhouette form is the logical conclusion.” This hybridization of venerable narrative material from Western lands like Germany with an even more venerable aesthetic from Eastern lands like Indonesia has assured only part of her work’s enduring appeal. “Ms. Reiniger will continue to have a strange affection for each of her figures,” the narrator notes. This is “an understandable affection, for in their flexibility they have almost human characteristics of movement.” It’s an affection anyone with an interest in animation, fairy tales, or Mozart will share.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.