Graduation Year

2011

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Ph.D.

Degree Granting Department

English

Major Professor

Phillip Sipiora

Keywords

Animation Studies, Disney Myth, Film History, Literary Adaptation, Lotte Reiniger, Weimar Cinema

Abstract

Contemporary American visual culture is saturated with animation, from websites and advertisements to adult and children's television programs. Animated films have dominated the American box office since Toy Story (1995) and show no signs of relenting, as demonstrated by Up (2009) and Alice in Wonderland (2010). Scholarly interest in animation has paralleled the steady rise of the popularity of the medium. Publications addressing animation have migrated from niche journals, such as such as Animation Journal and Wide Angle, to one of the most mainstream English-language publications, the Modern Language Association's Profession, which included Judith Halberstam's article "Animation" in 2009, in which she discusses the potential of animation to transcend outdated notions of disciplinary divides and to unify the sciences and humanities. However, the origins of the animated feature film remain obscured. My dissertation clarifies this obscurity by recovering Lotte Reiniger, the inventor of the multiplane camera and producer of the first animated feature film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926).

Because of the international and interdisciplinary qualities of animation, my project draws upon a wide array of disciplines including film theory, historiography, and criticism; European modernisms; animation studies; early German culture; folklore; and literary adaptation. In order to explore such diverse subject matter I utilize feminist, discourse, Marxist/cultural, and film theories.

My first chapter demonstrates inconsistencies concerning the development of the animated film throughout animation scholarship despite the recent proliferation of publications. Most of the scholarship misattributes the innovations of Reiniger, including her invention of the multiplane camera and the animated feature film, to the Disney Company. The related scholarship reveals a suspicious omission, or passing mention, of Reiniger. The conflicting and sparse scholarship prompts my inquiry into the causes of her critical marginalization.

In the second chapter I historically and culturally contextualize Reiniger by examining contemporaneous writers and artists, as well as the early German film industry. I argue that (German) national identity negatively impacted her and the film's discourse position. I contextualize Prince Achmed within Expressionism, Bauhaus, Constructivism, Dada, Surrealism, and the New Objectivity and measure it by contemporaneous critical standards represented by Kracauer, Balazs, and Arnheim. An analysis of the film as an adaptation of a popular literary text highlights its formal singularity: its status as an independent animated feature. Despite initial critical acclaim and use of elements from celebrated visual movements, the very elements that are unique to the film have historically contributed to its critical neglect. I posit that 1926, the year of Prince Achmed's Berlin and Parisian releases, was a particularly difficult time for the German film industry. The difficulties of this era were intensified for independent productions, such as Prince Achmed. Hollywood had established hegemony after targeting its only competition, the German film industry. Americanism dominated Weimar culture, resulting in domestic critical neglect of German film. Anti-German sentiment abounded internationally. The convergence of these events coincided with the release of Prince Achmed and further damaged its critical legacy.

In chapter three I consider the influence of gender on the discourse positions of Reiniger and Prince Achmed. An overview of contemporaneous female artists and filmmakers elucidates the complicated relationships between women and film and women and modernity. Invoking Guyatri Chakravorty Spivak's interrelated concepts of the "politics of interpretation," "cultural marginalia," and "masculist centrality/feminist marginality," I posit Prince Achmed as a feminist celebration of handicraft and a critique of modern culture. Reiniger embraces her relegation to the private/domestic/feminine realm by revolutionizing silhouette cutting in the form of animated (feature) film. In Prince Achmed she critiques the contradiction between imagery of the New Woman and the actual plight of women in modernity.

After situating animated film within the larger genre of film, in chapter four I reflect upon the scholarly tendency to relegate film to a status subordinate to traditional visual media, thereby further marginalizing animation. In this chapter I also define and debunk the Disney myth, which includes widespread misconceptions that Disney invented the multiplane camera and pioneered the animated feature film. I highlight contributing factors such as a noticeable lack of animation scholarship (Edera; Pilling) and a gap in interwar German history during which Prince Achmed was produced (Kracauer; Arnheim; Edera). The concept of "historical imaginary" developed by Elsaesser and Foucauldian "mechanisms of power" assist an understanding of the creation and nearly century-long perpetuation of the Disney myth, which has lost relevance to contemporary critical discourse.

Having established primary and tertiary causes of the marginalization of Reiniger and Prince Achmed, I determine that this is a timely project since, according to Walter Benjamin, all images become intelligible only in later corresponding epochs. This "synchronicity" renders Prince Achmed comprehensible to critics in contemporary American animation-saturated culture. Because each chapter focuses on an element of otherness, my project illuminates the individual and culminating effects of national identity, gender, and genre on film history and discourse. By restoring Lotte Reiniger and Prince Achmed to their rightful discourse positions, my dissertation challenges existing understandings of the origins of animated film and development of the medium of film. Furthermore, my project encourages interdisciplinary scholarship, ongoing recovery of women and other historically overlooked groups, and interrogations of literary and other canonization.

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