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  • Writer's picture Gary Bills


A case could be made that shadow puppetry is the opposite of real existence, at least the real world as presented by Plato in The Republic, with his allegory of the cave, where Plato has Socrates suggest that the world is like a cave of flickering shadows. Plato’s allegory suggests that the real world, and true perception, lies beyond the cave’s mouth, in the place where sunlight and colours may exist.

It could also be claimed that the ancient art of shadow puppetry can have little appeal to a mass audience, in the age of television, film and the internet. However, other critics, when discussing the work of Lotte Reiniger, have written of the power of the imagination to transform silhouette imagery into an art form which is still moving and relevant today.

Lotte Reiniger, from one perspective, can be seen as the opposite of the man who leaves Plato’s cave. She forsakes brightness for shadows, clarity for suggestions and hints, and she leaves aside the quest for true perception for a superficial charm instead. Her ten minute work, Papageno, for instance, is a black and white spectral ballet: set in a tropical Neverland of exotic birds and feathery ferns and trees, where the distance is a deliberately out-of-focus landscape, - sketched on fragile tissue paper, and flattened down by a necessary and weighty pane of glass. In the age of 3D films, satellite communication and the virtual reality offered by the Oculus Rift, how can Reiniger’s Papageno be more than a ghostly visitant from 1935, the year of its completion?

Indeed, the argument can be further extended to the idea of shadow puppetry in general. For instance, Ward Keeler in Javanese Shadow Puppets paints a picture of a culture of shadow puppetry, dating back a millennium, challenged by the forces of modernity. Keeler writes: “….electricity, education, and command of the Indonesian language opens up a world of entertainment previously little known to most Javanese, such as television, movies and pop music…”

Keeler is an enthusiast of shadow puppetry, of course, and critics of Reiniger’s work have seen qualities which, in terms of storytelling, are at least superior to the text alone, and also conventional film. For instance, William Moritz, in Animation: Art and Industry wrote: “The early critics of Reiniger’s work recognised the special power of the pure black-and-white silhouette: Bela Balasz, in his essay The Power of Scissors noted that any literary text seemed hardly competitive with the imaginative quality of the silhouette.” Cont - p2.

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