In 1923 Lotte Reiniger began production on her animated feature film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, which was finally released in 1926. It has often been noted that her friend and collaborator Walter Ruttman is said to have been upset by the fact that this film apparently had nothing to do with the year 1923, and what was a very challenging time in Germany economically and politically. As Esther Leslie so eloquently asks: ‘What did the dancing shadows, trapped in a flat world of genies and demons, caught only with sidelong glances, have to do with the spectacular collapse of the German economy in the epoch of hyperinflation?’ (2014, p. 27). Ruttman’s view, apparently, was that Reiniger’s film simply had nothing to do with the context they were living in. For him, it was pure fantasy, simply a fairy-tale so far removed from reality that not a trace of Prince Achmed’s context can be found within the fabric of the film. Following his arguments, and thinking in terms of the reception of the film, Prince Achmed would therefore be irrelevant to a suffering nation; the film simply could not ‘speak to’ their grief and hardship. For Leslie it is in part the very fabric of the film that does bear correlation with the context it was made in – paper (used to make the silhouettes), the very stuff of banknotes, was expensive (2014, p. 27). More than this ‘this animation had everything to do with the crisis years, re-presenting, in graphic form, a fading out of all life’s color, a distancing from the graspable three-dimensionality of reality, the world or life as bare, a shadow of its former self’ (2014, p. 27) (italics in original). Perhaps, then, the materiality of the film in its paper silhouette form, its 2D flatness, and its world of shadows, shows us more about Germany at the time than is at first apparent – as Leslie says, it lays the world bare and we can see the cracks.
It is easy to see Reiniger’s films as having simply nothing to do with the ‘real’ of the context that she was working in. And yet Leslie thinks differently as does William Moritz who suggests that, in the subtext of some of Reiniger’s fairy-tale work, there are issues to do with feminism and equality (1996). As a lecturer in film and television I am constantly telling my students that it is important we understand the context that films are produced and consumed in, and yet I do struggle to clearly identify these links in Reiniger’s work. That being said I have always thought that fantasy (in this case fairy-tale) speaks to some truth of the world we live in. I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not simply because it was full of vamps, werewolves, witches and all sorts of wonderfully fantastical beings, but because these very beings were usually a metaphor for the struggle of the everyday, be it school, work or monstrous boyfriends. Metaphor and subtext (sometimes more deeply hidden than others) is arguably at the core of fantasy-based film and television. But perhaps Prince Achmed is pure escapism after all and if so what is the harm in that? Maybe watching beautifully elegant shadows flitting across the screen allows a brief respite from a very real shadow of economic crisis and instability.
Leslie, E. (2014) ‘Animation and History’ in Karen Beckman (ed.) Animating Film Theory, Durham and London: Duke University Press
Moritz, W. (1996) ‘Some Critical Perspectives on Lotte Reiniger’ in Maureen Furness (ed.) Animation Journal (5:1) Fall, pp 40-51.
Dr. Caroline Ruddell joined the Screen Media department at Brunel University in 2013 as Lecturer in Film and Television. Before this she taught film, television and popular culture at St. Mary’s University College, Strawberry Hill where she specialised in film theory, representation onscreen and animation. She has published on witchcraft in television, anime, Rotoshop, and the representation of identity onscreen. Caroline is currently researching Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette films and is also writing a book on the representation of stepparents onscreen. She is Reviews Editor for the Sage publication animation: an interdisciplinary journal and sits on various Editorial Boards.