Dark of the Matinée: Shadow Play // Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed

a black and white photo of Lotte Reiniger at her desk working on a shadow puppet

Like so many other aspects of the film industry, animation is still a male-dominated field. In the early days of the industry, women worked most often as inkers and painters, so while their work was arduous and crucial, it often went uncredited and rarely got them promoted to supervising or directing positions. Fortunately, women are constantly gaining ground in animation, especially as producers – Toy Story 3, produced by Darla K. Anderson, became the highest-grossing animated movie of all freaking time – and I'm already counting down the months until Brave, which will feature Pixar's first female lead plus is co-written by Irene Mecchi, who you might know as creator of the esteemed Recycle Rex (really) and co-writer of a little movie called The Lion King (due credit also goes to Osamu Tekuza and, uh, Shakespeare). But let's turn the clock back and pay a little homage to a woman who became an animation pioneer before 3D, before CGI, even before Mary Ellen Bute's experimental shorts or Retta Scott's Disney screen credit: Charlotte "Lotte" Reiniger (1899-1981).

Inspired by Indonesian and Chinese shadow puppetry techniques dating back to the Han Dynasty, a teenaged Reiniger began experimenting with animated silhouette films that worked much the same as Chinese shadow plays. Using black cardboard and scissors, Reiniger cut out exquisitely detailed character silhouettes, joined their limbs with thread or wire to make the puppets movable, then positioned them on the surface of a light box and photographed each frame individually, stopping between frames to move each figure a few millimeters more with her hands. This excerpt from "The Art of Lotte Reiniger," a short documentary on her techniques, shows Reiniger at work (the cutting out of the silhouettes starts around 3:13):

After perfecting the silhouette technique in a number of short films and in animated sequences for other directors like Fritz Lang, Reiniger used her stop-motion silhouettes to make a feature-length silent film, Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed), based on a few stories from One Thousand and One Nights. Reiniger and a crew of five others, including her husband, Carl Koch, began working on Prince Achmed in 1923 and completed the film in January 1926. While it is not the first feature-length animated movie – at least two had been made before it – it is the oldest one that currently survives. It was almost destroyed forever when an Allied bombing of Berlin took out the original copy in 1945, but a duplicate was discovered in London in 1972. The film has experienced something of a revival in recent years, with theater screenings featuring new scores performed live.

The gender and race politics are as outdated as you might expect from a 1926 movie based on a fairy tale (women get traded around as property; the African magician and Chinese emperor are exoticized villains, and even the good Witch can be interpreted as a racial caricature). Visually, though, the movie is inspiring. Reiniger and her background artist, Walter Türck, created evocative multilayered backgrounds using transparent paper and opaque cardboard, using a predecessor to the multiplane camera that Disney would make famous eleven years later with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

An intricate black shadow design of Aladdin discovering the lamp in the cave against a blue background. A black silhouette of Witch releasing good spirits, visualized with lighter shadows from the lamp against a blue background.
Top: Aladdin discovering the lamp in the cave. Bottom: The Witch releasing good spirits from the lamp.

Reiniger worked with animators Walter Ruttmann and Bertold Bartosch to create the special lighting effects for sequences like the genies emerging from Aladdin's lamp, the spells cast by the Witch and the African Magician and the final battle between spirits of good and evil, which are represented by moving balls of light. But it is Reiniger's detailed silhouette figures that dazzle the most; if you see the time and care that it takes her to animate Papageno walking one step (see "The Art of Lotte Reiniger," above), then multiply that by an action-packed 65-minute film full of human, animal and supernatural characters, you'll get some idea of the enormity of the project, especially since her characters, lacking spoken dialogue and even facial expression, communicate primarily through body language. During the fight between the Witch and the African Magician (see video below), the two characters smoothly transmogrify into different animals, showcasing Reiniger's talent at its best.

After completing another 65-minute feature, Doktor Dolittle und seine Tiere (Dr. Dolittle and His Animals, based on the Hugh Lofting novel), Reiniger and Koch traveled throughout Europe from 1933 to 1949, working in France, England and Italy on temporary tourist visas and trying to find somewhere to escape the rise of Nazism in Germany. Reiniger was finally able to emigrate to England in 1949, where she signed with Primrose Productions to create a series of silhouette shorts based on fairy tales. Most of these included voiceover narration, but the sets and characters are elaborate enough to tell the story all by themselves. Reiniger also created silhouette films based on works by composers like Mozart and Bizet.

Usually, when watching movies that are important in film history, the viewing pleasure comes from noting the first use of a certain technique and trying to imagine how it must have felt for audiences of the time to see it. But with Prince Achmed, the beauty of the figures and their movements are still fresh, and the pacing is fast enough to keep contemporary viewers (or at least contemporary animation enthusiasts) paying attention, which is quite a feat for a movie that's nearly 100 years old. Big ups, Lotte.

a black shadow puppet of a woman holding a  bird against a yellow background

Previously: That Boy's Life: Super 8, Celebrity Hate Crush: Bad Teacher

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Comments

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Wow.

Wow. Despite the problematic racial imagery these animations are GORGEUS, especially considering they are from the early 1920's. Thanks for the great post!

Stunning

I saw this film on Turner Classic Movies a few years ago, and it's absolutely beautiful! It's amazing to think that this was all done by hand while film was still in its infancy.