Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Weimar animation - The Star of Bethlehem

Strikingly modern image - but it's from 1921  It comes from Lotte Reiniger's film The Star of Bethlehem originally made in Germany but best known in the version below, produced in 1953, using the Glyndebourne chorus,  though they aren't listed in the credits. In the early days of film, artists were experimenting with many new techniques, from short stop animations (Meliés, Segundo do Chomo ) to posed shots of insects (Wladyslaw Starewicz), light shows (Walther Ruttmann) and sophisticated fantasy (René Clair) so it was perhaps natural that Reiniger, who worked in avant garde film circles, should turn to the German art of Scherenschnitte which had thrived in the 18th and 19th century, before photography took hold.

Silhouettes and puppets bridge folk art and sophisticated commercial performance. As a child, Goethe had an elaborate toy theatre where he acted out dramas of his own creation.  Silhouettes, puppets and street theatre have roots not only in German culture but also in Turkish, Chinese and Indonesian Wayang. Thus Reiniger's use of Scherenschnitte fuses tradition and modernity, folk tradition and high tech art. .

Lotte Reiniger's Scherenschitte are beautifully executed - look at the lace tracery on the angel's wings - but she adapts the form so the figures move, and can be posed like puppets, and animated for film.  The figures are black, so you see only the outlines: you fill in the magic with your imagination. Early 20th century audiences would have connected the images in this film with silhouettes they'd known from their own childhoods and responded to the magic of memory. Twenty-first century audiences, bombarded with a multiplicity of styles, would do well to ponder the simplicity of Reiniger's art, which uses naive form in a highly sophisticated, non-naive way to recreate a sense of mystery and wonder.

Reiniger and her husband, Carl Koch, were both closely involved with Weimar left wing circles. In 1933, they left Grermany, settling first in France, reaching England in 1949. Reiniger left her archive to the British Film Institute which has released a 2 DVD set of her fairy films. Read more here about how they've been restoring the original The Star of Bethlehem, painstakingly removing the desiccated cellotape that held the cardboard joints in place while filming took place. They are also replacing the long sequence of flying devils which were "considered so scary that they were cut from the American release". Some things, alas, don't change. From the stills in the article quoted above, those demons seem a crucial part of the whole. So perhaps the version below will be replaced by something less sanitized. Also recommended, a documentary made about Reiniger in1970, which is well worth the rental price of £1.

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