April 20, 2007
In my view, there are two types of people in the world: those who are in love with Lotte Reiniger's films, and those who haven't seen them yet. If you're unfamiliar with Reiniger's films, the image at left should give you an idea of her style: she was a pioneer of silhouette films, in which the characters and objects were hinged cutout figures manipulated on glass and lit from underneath.

I don't use the word "pioneer" lightly. Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is often labelled as the first feature-length animated film, but Reiniger's 65-minute The Adventures of Prince Achmed was completed in 1926, while Walt was still working on the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts. And creating images based on layered cutouts necessitated a setup quite similar to a multiplane camera. You can see images of Reiniger at work on this excellent German website.

Prince Achmed was incredibly ambitious, especially considering Reiniger had fewer than ten films under her belt at the time; but if you have the good fortune to see it on the big screen, you realize how much she was in command of her art. None of the fantasy, wonder, romance or whimsy of 1,001 Arabian Nights is lost. And, amazingly, she continued to produce enchanting films for another fifty years.

Which brings me to a recent release I just head about, Musik und Zaubereien (Music and Magic), the third in German company absolutMEDIEN's series of DVDs featuring Reiniger's work. (It's region-free, but it's in PAL, so if you don't have a multi-format DVD player, you can at least watch it on your computer screen.) You won't find The Adventures of Prince Achmed there—that's a separate absolutMEDIEN release, with more extras than the American DVD—but you will find two discs of her work spanning from 1930 to 1971, with her pre-WWII films on one disc and post-WWII films (made in England) on the other. The discs also come with a 27-page booklet (in German), including such things as copies of the censorship cards for some of her films.

It's almost twenty years since I first saw a Reiniger film—it might have been one of her National Film Board of Canada shorts—and about fifteen since I saw The Adventures of Prince Achmed on the big screen at the Cinémathèque Québecoise. While other filmmakers have made excellent silhouette films, they seem incomplete compared to Reiniger's. Michel Ocelot's Princes et princesses from 2000, which incorporates his 1987 short Les Quatres voeux, has the humour, Zumbakamera's Bendito Machine has the bizarrely fantastic imagery, but in all this time I've never had the sense of completeness I get with Reiniger's films. If you haven't yet fallen in love with Lotte Reiniger's work, Musik und Zaubereien is as good a place as any to start.

[Thanks, Society for Animation Studies.]

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