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    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


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    Sunday, December 23, 2018

    Der Stern von Bethlehem (1921)

    (The above screen-grab is from Reiniger's 1956 film The Star of Bethlehem)
    One of the lost biblical films that I dearly hope will turn up in someone's attic one day is Lotte Reiniger's 1921 Der Stern von Bethlehem. For years I laboured under the mis-apprehension that the 1956 film The Star of Bethlehem which I reviewed here, was essentially just the 1921 film re-released with narration. Sadly I've now found out enough about this to make this appear highly unlikely. For one thing most of Reiniger's pre-WWII films were lost during the bombing of Berlin, though thankfully her classic The Adventures of Prince Achmed - made five years later in 1926 -  has survived and enjoyed a couple of recent restorations. The European Lost Films Archive officially lists this as lost.

    Another key factor is that the 1921 film appeared so early in Reiniger's career that it seems unlikely her style would have developed to the level of sophistication on display in the 1956 film. The layering on the backgrounds, the use of colour and just the smoothness of the movement all suggest an artist at the top of her game. Prince Achmed is considered a masterpiece, but even with that it's plain to see the development in her technique.

    That said Reiniger always gave the impression that she was just doing what came naturally to her. In a rare interview with her in 1976, she talked about how she was able to cut-out intricate figures from card from almost as soon as she was able to hold a pair of scissors.(1) You can see her at work in the 1970 documentary, The Art of Lotte Reiniger, and the speed with which she works is certainly impressive. She also included an animated version of her scissors cutting out the figures at the start of another of her surviving early films Cinderella (1922). The intricacy of these cut outs, the sleeves on the dresses here for example - in a hand-cut moving image - are incredible. Furthermore "Reiniger’s great strength as an animator is her inclusion of delicate little motions that imbue her creations with life".(2)

    Reiniger started her career as an animator working on Paul Wegener's Der Rattenfänger von Hameln (The Pied Piper of Hamelin, 1918) aged just 17. The film was a live action movie, but when Wegener was struggling to get his rats to follow his piper he turned to Reiniger to produce an animated sequence instead. The year after Hameln's release she directed her own short film Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens (The Ornament of the Enamoured Heart, 1919) making her work more or less contemporary with the women featured in Kino Lorber's Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers box set, released last month.

    Der Stern von Bethlehem was only her third film then (following Amor und das standhafte Liebespaar) both of which were produced by the Institute for Cultural Research in Berlin.(3) Whilst the Institute Around the same time she began to work for advertising exec Julius Pinschewer and it's thanks to this partnership that we have her oldest surviving work Das Geheimnis der Marquise (The Marquise’s Secret, 1921/2).(4) The film tells of a woman who woos her lover thanks to her skin which is "as white as snow". When the Marquis begs to know which god gave her such radiance she tells him it was all down to her Nivea cream.

    Whilst the plot and dialogue are hardly extraordinary it's an interesting reference point. For one thing Reiniger's art and creativity is plain to see. In particular the moment when she is applying her cream and her face appears in the mirror opposite is especially striking. It's also notable that the figures here are white on a black background, rather than the dark figures in the foreground that came to typify Reiniger's style.

    Interpolating between Marquise and Cinderella gives us a fair idea of what might have been in Der Stern von Bethlehem. It's unlikely to have been as long as the 1956 film and the background would probably have been plain, rather than the striking, multi-planed backgrounds of the latter work.(5) The style may have been slightly different from all three films.

    Reiniger and her husband and life-long collaborator Carl Koch eventually fled Nazi Germany and for many years moved from place to place including Egypt, Greece and Italy. Eventually they had to return home and were pressed into making work for the Nazis. After the war the couple moved to London where they enjoyed their most productive period, creating 22 films in just ten years between 1949 and 1958. Many of these films were based on German fairy tales including a remake of Cinderella so the 1956 remake was something of an exception.

    Sadly, it seems likely we'll never get to see the original, but the 1956 version an be viewed on the Gospel Film Archive's Christmas Collection DVD, on YouTube, or on this DVD/Bluray release of  The Adventures of Prince Achmed which also includes her 1974 film The Lost Son based on the parable of Jesus.(6) If you would like to find out more about Lotte Reiniger there are a range of good podcasts or you could have a read of Whitney Grace's new book "Lotte Reiniger: Pioneer of Film Animation".

    1 - Kenneth Clouse Collection, Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive, University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. Available online - http://uschefnerarchive.com/project/lotte-reiniger-recording/
    2 - Kramer, Fritzi (2018). Cinderella (1922) A Silent Film Review March 18, at Movies Silently - http://moviessilently.com/2018/03/18/cinderella-1922-a-silent-film-review/
    3 - Guerin, Frances and Mebold, Anke (2013) "Lotte Reiniger." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, Web. July 6, 2016 https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/lotte-reiniger/
    4 - ibid
    5 - Seemingly it was Reiniger, not Walt Disney, who invented the multi-planed camera, though he developed the design and patented it. Indeed, quite a lot of Reiniger's leagcy appears to have been consolidated into the Disney myth. Snow White (1937) is often credited as the first feature-length animated film, but of course this appeared a full eleven years after Prince Achmed which at between 66 and 81 minutes certainly qualifies as being feature length.
    6 - The BFI have posted an excerpt of the film on YouTube and it's clear that this version of the film contains a male narration track which also features some singing in contrast to the voice of Barbara Ruick who provides the narration on the Cathedral Films version released by Gospel Films.

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