The German animator Lotte Reiniger is currently in the process of being extremely well represented on DVD by the BFI. Her 1926 film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the earliest surviving feature-length animation, was one of their first DVD releases back in 2001 (and is still currently available) and they are now setting about issuing much of the remainder of her output. The Fairy Tale Films compiles 19 shorts over two discs on a self-evident theme, whilst a further collection – this one to be centred on Reiniger’s music films – will be released at some point during 2009. Meanwhile the BFI ongoing series of volumes devoted to the GPO Film Unit will similarly feature some of her short films. For the completist it is perhaps also worth noting that Reiniger contributed a shadowplay for Jean Renoir’s La Marseilles (1931) which can be found on Optimum’s seven-disc Region 2 Renoir boxed-set. By the end of the year we should find the vast majority of the 40 surviving Reiniger films easily available on disc.
For those unaware of Reiniger or her prolific output, it should be immediately noted that not only was she a distinctive filmmaker but also a pioneering one. The earliest short on this collection, a version of Cinderella from 1922, describes itself as being “told by a pair of scissors on a screen” and this is exactly how she worked. Reiniger’s films were all made in a singular silhouette style: intricately designed figures delicately animated against simple backgrounds to retell popular and much-loved stories, predominantly fairy tales as this collection suggests. As well as Cinderella we also find Thumbelina, Puss in Boots, Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk and so on, the tales of Brothers Grimm intermingling with the tales from the One Thousand and One Nights. Yet interestingly her technique and style came effectively fully-formed. New technologies would see her films move from silent to sound and from black and white to occasional colour, yet the basic ingredients never once change. Compare the 1922 Cinderella with the 1954 version also included on this set and you’ll see how much the two resemble each other in their briskness of pace, their fundamental character designs and their overall charm – only the fact that the latter was made for US television suggests why some of the more grotesque elements have been toned down. (As a complete contrast note the extreme differences between the two versions of Cinderella found on Disney’s now deleted two-disc special edition, the first also made in 1922, the latter being the 1949 feature; other than the source and the Disney name on both there really is only the bare minimum to connect the two.)
Given Reiniger’s homogenous style it therefore makes scant difference that the vast majority of the shorts featured on The Fairy Tale Films were produced between 1953 and 1955. Additionally we find a pair of silents, The Golden Goose from 1944 (the only film Reiniger produced during the war years, made in Berlin whilst she cared for her ailing mother) and a very brief all-colour version of The Frog Prince to be played during the interval of 1961 pantomime at the Coventry Theatre. Each short simply blends into the next, the fact that some of the 1954 television efforts were derived from The Adventures of Prince Achmed being barely noticeable were you not familiar with the original. And yet this should not be considered a criticism: the storytelling in each of the films is simple and easy to follow despite the breakneck pace (in stark contrast to the almost lightweight properties of the figures onscreen, seemingly moving around to a different gravity to our own); the tales themselves are so familiar that they prompt a certain ease in the viewer, further complemented by the jaunty scores mostly provided by Freddie Phillips and the gentle tones of the uncredited narrators, not to mention being in possession of that certain magic which allows Reiniger to produce some delightful visual magic (the drunken visions in The Death-Feigning Chinaman , sundry metamorphoses, interaction between humans and animals, humans and giants, and so and so on). In all they produce a three-hour-plus collection as easy to sit through in a single sitting as they are to sample one at a time, perhaps just before bedtime as a means of winding down either yourselves or the children.
The 19 shorts making up The Fairy Tale Films have been spread over two double-layered discs with the extras occupying some of the space on the second. Taken from prints held by the Deutsches Filmmuseum the majority of these shorts come across as perfectly suitable. The silent pieces are delivered as such whilst The Golden Goose has been provided with a new English narration by Jim Dempster derived from the Brothers Grimm and utilises a 1988 soundtrack constructed by Primrose Productions (Reiniger’s own company now run by Caroline Hagen, the daughter of Louis Hagen who assisted on most of the director’s shorts) derived from other Freddie Phillips scores. It’s worth noting that a hand grenade blast destroyed most of Reiniger’s original negatives in 1943, meaning that most of her works prior to this time only exist in print form and as such explains why the silents and those derived from Prince Achmed look to be in poorer condition than those from 1944 onwards. Otherwise – a slightly muffled soundtrack on The Gallant Little Tailor and moderate damage on some of the other 1953-1954 titles aside – there’s little to note other than correct aspect ratios being in place and colours, where applicable, being wonderfully vivid. And given how outwardly simple Reiniger’s methods were even those earlier shorts never prove unwatchable – far from it in fact, as we’re still able to witness those expressive designs. Meanwhile, optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing are available on all of the films where applicable.
The extras amount to 20-page booklet offering notes on each of the shorts contained, full credits and a bio for Reiniger but sadly few illustration, a fascinating 1970 documentary short produced by Primrose Productions entitled The Art of Lotte Reiniger and an extract from Sky Arts’ Friday Night Hijack hosted by Mike Figgis. The documentary suffers from a soundtrack in very poor condition (acknowledged in the booklet and rectified by the option of English subtitles) but offers some wonderful into Reiniger’s methods as we see her at work. It doesn’t go into the depth of the documentary that accompanied the BFI’s Prince Achmed disc (1999’s hour-long Lotte Reiniger: Homage to the Inventor of the Silhouette Film, directed by Katja Raganelli), though anyone who picks up this disc would do well to own that one too. As for the Figgis piece, his introduction is brief and to the point, whilst the disc has also been programmed in such a way that the three shorts he selected for a screening on the Sky Arts channel follow his intro in order. As with everything else on these discs, Figgis also comes accompanied by optional English HOH subtitles.
The Death Feigning Chinaman (1928)
The Golden Goose (1944)
Aladdin and his Magic Lamp (1954)
The Frog Prince (1954)
The Gallant Little Tailor (1954)
Sleeping Beauty (1954)
Snow White and Rose Red (1954)
Puss in Boots (1954)
The Magic Horse (1954)
The Grasshopper and the Ant (1954)
The Three Wishes (1954)
The Caliph Stork (1954)
Hänsel and Gretel (1954)
Jack and the Beanstalk (1955)
The Little Chimney Sweep (1956)
The Frog Prince (1961)
Released by the BFI towards the end of last year, Anthony Nield takes a look at Lotte Reiniger: The Fairy Tale Films, a two-disc 19-film film compilation of the German animator's work.