One of the most iconic works to come out of steampunk culture has been the short film Jasper Morello, which uses silhouette puppetry as its style. Recently we just showed a very lovely short film ‘The Invention Of Love‘ which also uses the same technique.
It is only fitting therefore that we take a look at the undisputed master of the silhouette puppet movie: Lotte Reiniger.
Ms. Reiniger was born in Berlin in 1899. As a child she fell in love with Chinese silhouette puppetry, but then as a teenager with the German Expressionism film explosion. Her combination of these two forms defines her work.
She began making her mark in the 20s during the great and astonishing Weimar Era of Germany. She made a feature length animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed in 1923, which is a conglomeration of tales from 1001 Arabian Nights. It is also worth mentioning that anyone who tells you Walt Disney made the first feature length animated film, with Snow White in 1937, they are wrong. Ms. Reiniger did it first 14 years earlier. (Disney made the first feature animated film using cels. You can say that.)
The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the oldest animated film which has surviving fragments. In its entirety however, it did not survive WWII. Here’s a snippet from the 1923 film:
WWII was brutal for Ms. Reiniger and her husband Carl Koch. They were involved in leftist politics and in 1933 decided to get out of Germany to escape the Nazi Party. However, no country would have them as permanent residents, so for 6 years they went from country to country staying only as long as their visitor visa would permit. Finally they had no choice but to go back to Germany to wait out the worst of the war.
In 1949 she and her husband finally moved to London. The 50s are where she left her permanent mark on the world. She was commissioned by an American company to make a series of fairy tales based on the Grimm stories. These became instant classics and anyone you talk to today who saw them as children will swoon with adoration.
Nowadays of course the silhouette puppet style is achieved using computers,. but interestingly it does live on and as Jasper Morello shows, continues to dazzle and inspire. Lotte Reiniger is of course responsible for this style having a cinematic life in the west, not to mention the absolute brilliance of her work remains awe inspiring.