(Germany 1922 13min)
Director Lotte Reiniger; Specially Written Verses Humbert Wolfe
by Stephen Russell-Gebbett
In terms of the text Lotte Reiniger’s Cinderella is a version much like any other. In all other respects it is unique. The opening title refers to it as “a fairy film in shadow show”. This is a delightful welcome to a fabulous and astoundingly beautiful film, the swooning product perhaps of her “extraordinarily happy” childhood during which she became obsessed with Chinese puppet theatre.
To tell her story Reiniger uses silhouetted figures with varying shades of coloured, grey or white paper for depth. The characters move both daintily and deliberately as though underwater or subject to a whole different gravity. Their poses communicate deep wells of feeling coiled within – yearning, fear and barely contained passion. Finally the effect is one of a dream of the story, aggregated from all the echoes of the past lives Cinderella has led ever since she was born on the page. This Cinderella reminds us that animation is a type of impressionism, touching more sensitively upon emotional realities than physical ones.
Cinderella begins rather unsettlingly with the silhouetted hand of the creator cutting Cinderella herself out of a piece of paper. This instant of creation, with the open acknowledgement of artifice and the presence of the puppeteer, is a mark of much animation. In Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo (1911) the artist draws the characters on a board to prove to mocking onlookers that he can make them move while Karel Zeman’s superb Inspirace has the artist peering into a drop of water to gain inspiration, to see his work grow within.
Furthermore, Cinderella functions like a set of Russian dolls. When one of the ugly sisters cuts her foot down to size to fit the glass slipper we see it this time as a reference to their incarnation in paper. We understand that drawings can draw drawings and cutouts can cut themselves out. This self-referential frivolity finds a hilarious conclusion when the other ugly sister is torn in two with rage at Cinderella’s happy ending.
The story is well-known, a beautiful fable of the meek and mild Cinderella whose suffering and kindness while enslaved by her sisters’ bullying is rewarded with a great joy all her own. It is a story of an underdog (she is even called a ‘slut’ at one point) but also a story that, as much as any other fable or fairytale, proposes the idea that a person’s character shows in their appearance. Cinderella is beautiful as a person and a beautiful girl to look at whereas the ugly sisters are ugly inside and out. You can feel the lightness of Cinderella’s soul in the twinkling of her footsteps and the heaviness of her sisters’ in their clunking, overbearing movements. Crude, perhaps, but effective in an uncomplicated world of make believe.
Practically all of Lotte Reiniger’s films were adaptations of fairytales, including her only feature film (and arguably the first feature-length animation) The Adventures of Prince Achmed. She doesn’t put much of a new spin on the stories (there is no Fairy Godmother) but instead (with the help of her husband and creative partner Carl Koch) coaxes every ounce of emotion, humour, and delicacy out of the simple texts. She makes them her own not by departing far from the wonderland but by making it her home and understanding the magic and power that lives there. By the end Cinderella has become the Reinigers’ child, her destiny safe in their hands.
You can watch Cinderella here: http://www.indiemoviesonline.com/watch-movies/cinderella-1922
It is available as part of a collection of Lotte Reiniger’s shorts on a Region 2 DVD : http://www.amazon.co.uk/Lotte-Reiniger-Fairy-Tales-DVD/dp/B001EJW0UY
[This Cinderella is not to be confused with another Lotte Reiniger made in 1954 when she was working in Britain. Nor is it to be confused with a Cinderella made by Cab Calloway, also in 1922.]