The fairy tale was there at the birth of cinema. It was in the first narrative film in 1896 (Alice Guy-Blaché’s The Cabbage Fairy), and it was weaved into the whimsical inter-galactic adventures and undersea excursions of Georges Méliès. But classed as childish, fantastical, and tinted by the optimistic adaptations of Disney over the decades, fairy tale films and their makers have slowly been dismissed and cast aside. Amongst them, the ingenious creator of over forty films, including The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the oldest surviving (if not the first altogether) feature-length animation: Lotte Reiniger.
The story of little Lotte is nothing short of its own fairy tale for the contemporary landscape of women film-makers. She dug her heels in and insisted to her parents that she was going to work with the film-makers she admired, including director Paul Wegener who soon adopted her early silhouettes for his film’s title cards. Lotte was invited to make animations at an experimental film studio in response.
Throughout her career, Reiniger built a mountain of moving picture achievements, from devising an early version of the multiplane camera (over a decade before Disney, who later adapted her work and patented it as his own), and being amongst the first to work with musicians for the moving image across Europe – all while trying to escape the Nazi rule which consumed her native country of Germany. (This was unfortunately cut short in 1944 when she and her husband had to return home, and Reiniger was forced to make propaganda).
At first glance, her work is unique for its extraordinarily intricate visual style. Inspired by Chinese paper cutting and shadow puppetry, her filmography consists of hand-cut silhouettes (often black and moved across a coloured or painted background), animated similarly to stop-motion. But her originality expanded further than just beautiful aesthetics and evolved the animation format closer towards what it is today.
In the 1920s, when Reiniger was first dipping her toes into filmmaking, animated figures depended on exaggerated facial expressions for characterisation, a convention that Reiniger pretty much threw to the wind. Her characters, silhouettes as they were, instead relied on mannerisms and behaviour. Each body is of course deliberately designed (from pointy chins and small noses to big foreheads and fine lips), but at the heart of each character’s agency is their movement.
With all the gory bits of the original, her 1922 version of Cinderella is perhaps one of her most well-known, combining a heartfelt love of the Grimm’s story and an acute knowledge of visual language and comedy. As Cinderella dresses her stepsisters for the ball, she topples over with how tight she has to lace-up her bodice and stuffs bowls, bottles and combs into her sister’s bust to try and fill it out. What animation also allows is adapting the more fantastical elements of fairy tales to show things that could not be shown in reality. Aghast at her stepdaughter’s success at wooing the prince, the wicked stepmother’s doll is literally ripped in half as she has a heart attack.
Actions speak louder than words and while we’re in an era before synced sound, Reiniger understood that behaviour spoke louder than a face – however beautifully drawn. Faithful to an original where there is no fairy godmother but just the natural world, Cinderella calls on the help of the birds to clean up the monumental task set by her stepmother so that she might make it to the ball herself. They fly into the kitchen in a swarm of black paper, and later on gather together the tangle of pieces to construct her breathtaking gown and veil for her to dance in. This idea of kinship to animals and the natural world has a pretty old and universal connection to femininity and is often how the heroines of traditional stories got by.
Femininity in fairy tales is a contested subject, not least because of the romanticised versions thought more ‘suitable’ for children these days which exaggerate traits of virtue and kindness. This is all well and good, except that in moderating the darkness of the originals they lose the staggering bravery of their heroines in the process. Traditional fairy tales were some of the first examples of girls getting to be heroes themselves. In many of the tales Reiniger draws inspiration from, yes, some princesses and girls succeeded because of their purity or gentleness, or sometimes were just saved by a handsome prince, but they were also often active protagonists aided (not rescued) by the natural or magical world.
What is so often infuriating in cinema is that many women on screen are passive characters to which things happen – even as protagonists – whereas in traditional fairy tales they actively got themselves into mischief, trouble and success. And who’s to say that heroines that succeed through their femininity aren’t just as empowered (though you then have to accept that gentleness and purity are purely feminine, but baby steps). In Reiniger’s works, young women do often end up with a prince in the end, but the stories she chooses to adapt are much more about how the girls’ actions win them the hearts of their prince, instead of men choosing their brides. They might look pretty, but they don’t sit still.
Reiniger’s silhouettes are animated so fluidly, not just pivoting on an elbow or a hip, but like clockwork, so the whole body moves with each action. This allows her heroines to jump off balconies, ride bulls and dance seductively (see Carmen (1933), whose film even opens with the heroine smoking over the city). What happens when you give characters the ability to walk across the frame, to navigate their own way through their landscapes – especially animated ones – is that they become active, literally moving the story on themselves. Seems like pretty simple stuff, but you’d be surprised how often it doesn’t happen.
Snow White and Red Rose is my favourite film from Reiniger because it’s about two little girls exploring a forest by themselves and saving a mysterious bear who just so happens to be a missing prince. Lotte demonstrates the intellectual side of the sisters through their ability to bargain with the wicked dwarf who traps the prince in an animal skin, but she spares no lengths to give them command over the woods as well. The girls jump over rocks, play with the birds and the deer, and have no fear of climbing trees overhanging rivers. The female silhouettes are so intricately designed (as are their clothes) that it’s a real effort to make them move with such complexity, but Reiniger still does it.
There’s the echo of invincible girlhood in the woods that we might recognise from Red Riding Hood because they’re free from any man-made law within the trees. Maybe that’s what’s so liberating about fairy tales: there are no rules for the little girls living in them until they enter into a magical task. Which is, deliberately or not, reflective of the real world. One of the purposes of fairy tales has always been to give the audience a safe and cathartic platform to experience hardship metaphorically and come out the other side.
When Thumbelina emerges from her flower in, you guessed it, Thumbelina, she innocently dances atop the flower she emerges from and befriends the creatures of the forest once again. But she is soon stolen by a toad who intends to marry Thumbelina to her son, and again, later, a mole decides he wants her as his wife despite the tiny girl’s reluctance. ‘He was rich, he had a large house, he was a person of importance,’ the narrator tells us. Paralleling the reality that pretty girls were commonly desirable and sought after is obvious, but you can also notice how these unwanted advances stopped women from being the adventurers and explorers they had previously been as children.
Each time, the creatures of the forest Thumbelina earlier befriended save her, eventually carrying her far away to Greece. It’s at this point that this particular film becomes personal. Carried far away from the snow and her underground groom, she is whisked away across the globe, much like how Lotte and her husband moved across Europe during the war to escape the darkness left behind. Eventually, after much travelling, Thumbelina finds a group of flower spirits who welcome her and even give her wings so she can fly by herself – the obstacle that had prevented her from escaping all those times before.
In 1949, Lotte moved to London to continue her work and founded Primrose Productions in 1953 where she, her husband and a small production team made short silhouetted fairy tales for the BBC and Telecasting America. She continued to make films until she died in 1981. Her unique visual style and attention to physicality and movement was pivotal to the evolution of animation, but also invested agency in femininity the way traditional fairy tales did: by letting little girls run around, just as fearlessly as the boys, on their own adventures.
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on thedaisydeer.wordpress.com, and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.
Categories: Women Film-makers