Animation Pioneer Lotte Reiniger Adapts Mozart’s The Magic Flute into an All-Silhouette Short Film (1935)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

The First Ani­mat­ed Fea­ture Film: The Adven­tures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger (1926)

Mozart’s Diary Where He Com­posed His Final Mas­ter­pieces Is Now Dig­i­tized and Avail­able Online

See Mozart Played on Mozart’s Own Fortepi­ano, the Instru­ment That Most Authen­ti­cal­ly Cap­tures the Sound of His Music

Hear All of Mozart in a Free 127-Hour Playlist

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.

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