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Katherine Rochester, Bryn Mawr College, History of Art

Animating Ornament: From Lotte Reiniger’s Silhouette Films to a Theory of the Decorative in Animation

Experimental animation from Weimar Berlin has a reputation for being non-narrative, geometrically abstract, and typically created by men. How, then, to account for Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed) known to be the first feature length animated film, which premiered in Berlin in 1926? The film is an epic fairy tale snipped to size in director Lotte Reiniger’s exquisitely designed and deftly animated silhouettes. Decorative, narrative, and directed by a woman, Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed challenges much of what we thought we knew about early animation. What happens when the ornamental silhouette—a longtime folk tradition and parlor game in Germany—is laid flat upon an animation table and filmed into motion? Why has this migration of ornament to film been largely neglected in art history and film studies? And how might the very means and resultant forms of such an animation process in some way account for Reiniger’s chronic neglect in U.S. histories of film?

Starting with Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed and continuing throughout her long career, Reiniger created over 60 fairy tale films composed of silhouettes which she filmed on an animation stand of her own design. This laborious process left a complex paper trail of silhouettes, storyboards and other filmmaking paraphernalia. These rarely studied objects represent an overlooked landmark in the history of animation. Through object-based research in Germany, I aim to examine Reiniger’s virtuoso combination of traditional handicraft with modern technology in order to gain a richer understanding of how this path-breaking animation sets the stage for the strategic deployment of ornament in Weimar film.