When I clicked on the Google search site a few days ago, I was surprised to find that Google was honoring the 117th birthday of Lotte Reiniger. Who was she? One of the early animation artists who made films out of fairy tales. Her pioneering work in the 1920s was an important part of the movement that led to the torrent of animated fairy tale films from the Disney studios and others.
Now that we are drowning in highly colored, loud, fast-paced versions of fairy tales on screens everywhere, it’s worthwhile to look back and think about how children encounter fairy tales. For most American children—at least the ones who are lucky enough to have a parent or caregiver who reads to them—their first experience of a fairy tale is an unamplified voice telling the tale while showing still pictures in a book. Often the story is read over and over again.
Fairy tales are usually told in a bare, straightforward style. “There was once a poor widow who lived in a lonely cottage. In front of the cottage was a garden wherein stood two rose trees, one of which bore white and the other red roses.” That’s the beginning of Snow White and Rose Red and the story continues in the same bare, clean style.
Lotte Reiniger’s adaptations of fairy tales started with a silhouette animated Cinderella in 1922. You can see the short film on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kku75vGDD_0 and watch how Reiniger brings the viewer into the story—showing how
the black paper is cut into figures who act out the story. The process is almost like that of a child who wants to draw pictures to illustrate the story she has just heard.
Of course Lotte Reiniger was not a child; she was a skillful artist who conceived the idea of telling a story through the traditional art of the silhouette. But unlike the silhouettes that were popular during the 18th and 19th century as portraits or as illustrations in books, Lotte Reiniger wanted to make her silhouettes move and so she invented a new form of animation.
Lotte Reiniger was born in Berlin in 1899. As a child she was attracted to art and to the movies, the new art form that was developing in Europe during the early years of the 20th century. As a young woman she worked in the movie industry and specialized in making silhouette title cards for the silent movies of the era. Then she moved on to making her own movies.
After marrying Carl Koch, a fellow artists who became her collaborator, she produced several more films in Germany. The couple left Germany when the Nazi party was rising to power, but were unable to get permanent visas to live in any other country, so for several years they lived in France, Italy and other European countries. But always they continued to work on their films. After the war, they moved to England where Lotte Reiniger made a number of silhouette films based on Grimm’s fairy tales and shown on the BBC.
Lotte Reiniger had a long and fruitful career. Her work influenced early animation films and deserves to be recognized as an important precursor to the work of later animation studios. But more than that, her films are still beautiful works of art that can be appreciated by children and adults today. Quite a few of them are available on YouTube.
Wouldn’t it be nice if today’s children could see some different ways in which fairy tales can be changed from words into pictures? Cinderella need not be the blonde glamour girl shown in American pop culture. The story doesn’t need to be puffed out with extra characters or elaborate songs. The magic is in the simple story itself. Fortunately, there are many talented artists who have given us different versions of the images our imaginations paint when we listen to the story. Thanks to Google for reminding us of the work and vision of Lotte Reiniger.