German Animation and China

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Rolf Giesen

Cartoon Movie, a yearly event that takes place in France every March, is sponsored by CARTOON, an international non-profit association based in Brussels. Cartoon Movie was first inaugurated at the Babelsberg Studios in Germany. CARTOON’s remit is to support the European animation industry by organizing several types of events through the year dedicated to animation professionals. As one of these events, Cartoon Movie aims to unite animation producers from all over Europe and provides a platform for them to promote their latest feature-length projects as well as locate possible partners, co-producers, distributors, and sales agents.

This year, Cartoon Movie took place in Bordeaux. Although Europe was its main focus, it also included some projects from non-European countries such as Israel, Canada, and South Korea, which was the only Asian country present for this event. Cartoon Movie has previously organized study trips to Seoul, the capital of South Korea, as a bridge for cultural exchanges in animated filmmaking between Asia and Europe. The most recent trip was scheduled in April 2017. The organizers have been reluctant, however, to build bridges and dialogues with China and Chinese animation, and it has so far been unclear as to why.

I think this attitude may change in the near future. Firstly, with the gradual adoption of Trump’s conservative policies and new formula of “America First” in the U.S., ties between other parts of the world, such as China and Europe, might be strengthened. Furthermore, China is now actively building a new “Silk Road” that connects one end of the Eurasian continent (Asia) to the other (Europe), to unite a continent rich in cultural diversity and history. In the following parts of this essay, I will discuss the symbolic “Silk Road” that connects China and Europe, more specifically Germany, in the history of world animation.

Shadow Plays and Silhouette Films

The idea of moving images, as embodied in shadow plays and optical toys such as the zoetrope, came from the East and found a receptive audience in the West. Lotte Reiniger (1899-1981), a female German animator born in Berlin, was the first person to produce a feature-length animated film based on a shadow play. It was a silhouette film entitled The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), a fairy tale that even had an episode featuring China (Fig 1). An evil sorcerer sells the heroine to the Emperor of China, and later she is rescued by Prince Achmed. This was one of the earliest attempts to create transcultural cinematic connections between China and Germany in animated filmmaking.       

Fig 1: The Adventures of Prince Achmed, 1926

Manfred Durniok

Half a century later, Manfred Durniok (1934-2003, Fig 2), a West Berlin producer, went to China in 1974 and made Meeting Place Peking (1974), a documentary film about life in China. He later produced Greetings from China (1979), which was the first big music programme for German TV. Durniok might be better known for his Academy Award-winning István Szábo live-action film Mephisto (1981), but his secret goal and ambition were to become the “German Walt Disney” and make animated films. It is therefore a small wonder that Durniok later co-produced low-budget animated feature films in collaboration with the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. He secured money from German TV, prepared the film scripts, and collaborated with the animators at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio.

Fig 2: Manfred Durniok (1934-2003)

In 1983, Durniok invested in the production of Secrets of the Heavenly Book (1983, Fig 3), a classic Chinese animated feature film produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. This film was celebrated as one of the best feature films produced by that studio. Six years later, Durniok went on to produce Reynard the Fox (1989), a 2D animated TV film, in collaboration with the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. It tells the story of a fox named Reynard, who is a well-known animal character in European fables.     

Fig 3: Secrets of the Heavenly Book, 1983

Durniok also produced a series of feature-length stop-motion animated films at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. Keraban’s Fantastic Voyage (1996-97) is an example. The protagonist Keraban is a die-hard Turk who does not want to pay the newly imposed taxes for passing the Bosporus from Constantinople to Skutari. Instead, he travels around the Black Sea and has many adventures.

There are more examples of collaboration between Durniok and the Shanghai Animation Film Studio in puppet animated feature films. One example is Around the World in 80 Days (1998). The protagonist of the film is Phileas Fogg, a member of the British Reform Club. He starts a journey around the world in 80 days to win a bet of 20,000 pounds. From the Earth to the Moon (1998-99) features Barbicane, a member of the Cannon Club of Baltimore. He is obsessed with the idea of using a giant projectile to go to the Moon. Five Weeks in a Balloon (2000-2001) revolves around two friends, Fergusson and Kennedy, who undertake an adventurous balloon trip to Africa with totally different purposes: one wants to explore the continent for scientific reasons, while the other is more interested in the mystic parts of Africa.

Durniok was the first non-Asian to become an Honorary Citizen of Beijing in 2000. He passed away in 2003. It is a pity that his sudden death brought an end to the collaboration between German and Chinese animation production companies. Just shortly before his death, he spoke with Wang Borong at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio about a project of adapting Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung into an animated film. Durniok’s last animated film in collaboration with the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, a puppet animated film called Children of Captain Grant, was released posthumously in 2005.   

Laura’s Star in China

With Durniok’s sudden death, the animated encounter between China and Germany was suspended for some time. In 2007, some prominent German animation producers visited Beijing, including Stefan Thies (NFP Neue Filmproduktion), Tony Loeser (Motion Works GmbH), and Thilo Rothkirch (Rothkirch Cartoon Film). Rothkirch collaborated with 3D Animagics, an animation studio in China, and produced his first Sino-German animated feature film, Laura’s Star and the Mysterious Dragon Nian, in 2009 (Fig 4). The film was released in China by the Shanghai Media Group two years later.      

Fig 4: Laura’s Star and the Mysterious Dragon Nian, 2009

It was the first Sino-German co-production in 3D animated filmmaking. More than 50% of the film was produced in Beijing, a small percentage was made in India, and the remaining parts in Berlin, Germany. Lang Lang, a famous Chinese pianist and also a fan of animation, participated in the production of this animated film. Laura’s Star and the Mysterious Dragon Nian won the International Gold Panda Awards for Best Domestic Animated Feature Film and Best Screenplay at the Sichuan TV Festival held in Chengdu, China in 2011. Rothkirch, however, could not continue his collaboration with China in animated filmmaking. He passed away in Berlin in 2014.   

Laura’s Star revolves around two girls—Laura, born in the West (Germany), and Lingling, born in the East (China). While playing in a park, Laura happens to find a shooting star that has landed on earth, which has magic powers. When Laura and her family go to Beijing, China, she brings the star with her. Through this magic star, Laura encounters Lingling at a concert in Beijing. Before a happy ending of cross-cultural friendship, the two girls need to undergo a series of adventures. They ultimately defeat the villains and send the star back into the sky.   

Sino-German cooperation in animation, if not co-production, continued. Little Big Panda (2011, Fig 5), a 2D animated feature film, was regarded as the most expensive domestic animated feature film in China at that time, with a budget of more than $50 million USD. But in fact, it was directed by Michael Schoemann and was produced in European countries such as Germany, Spain, and Belgium for less than $10 million USD. Chen Xiaoxiong, a wealthy and well-connected Chinese investor, spent a lot of money on dubbing this animated film into Chinese using famous voice actors and on launching a large scale promotional campaign, with the ambition of competing with Hollywood’s Kung Fu Panda (2008). That is how the budget of the film increased to $50 million USD. It premiered in China in 2011. Unfortunately, the German production did not live up to Chen’s expectations, as it could not surpass the international popularity of Kung Fu Panda.

Fig 5: Little Big Panda, 2011

Animals United

Another aspect of the animated Sino-German encounter is the German animated films that were released in China. One example is Animals United (2010, Fig 6), which was released in Germany in 2010. Inspired by Erich Kästner’s satirical book The Conference of Animals (1955), it was a 3D computer animated comedy adventure film, directed by Reinhard Klooss and Holger Tappe. It was released in China in 2011 and became an instant hit. Although it was not a Sino-German co-production or cooperation, the ties between China and Germany continued through cross-cultural screenings.

Fig 6: Animals United, 2010

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai and Marco Polo

Another example of Sino-German connection in animation is A Jewish Girl in Shanghai (2010, Fig 7), a 2D animated feature film made by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. Although it was not a co-production between China and Germany, the story was about China and Germany during World War II. The film features two Jewish children, Rina and her little brother Mishalli, who leave Europe and seek refuge in Shanghai in 1939. During their stay in Shanghai, Rina gradually befriends Zhou A-gen, a Chinese boy, who helps them to survive. The children develop a deep friendship and embark on numerous adventures, resisting the oppression of the Japanese army and their Nazi allies.

The film script was written by Wu Lin, a former history teacher. He first became interested in Shanghai’s Jewish community in 2005, at a time when many newspapers and magazines published stories about Jewish refugees to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. The film was well received in China and around the world. It was regarded as the first Chinese animated film to feature Jews and the Holocaust, thus promoting friendship between the Chinese and the Jewish community. 

Fig 7: A Jewish Girl in Shanghai, 2010

On the other side of the border, China is often represented in German animated films. Tony Loeser’s TV animation series The Adventures of the Young Marco Polo (2013-) is an example (Fig 8). The production of this series does not involve China, but the story addresses China. It features young Marco Polo on a journey to find his father, who is lost while exploring the Silk Road to China. Accompanied by his faithful friend Luigi and a Chinese princess named Shi La Won, the young Marco Polo heads for China along the Silk Road.                   

Fig 8: The Adventures of the Young Marco Polo, 2013

Coda 

I am convinced that cultural exchanges between Europe and China, be it in the form of co-production, collaboration, cross-cultural representation, or cross-cultural screening, can be a win-win situation for both parties. Recently, independent Chinese animated films have found their way to Germany. Liu Jian’s Have a Nice Day (2017) was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) in 2017. Sino-German encounters in animation will surely continue in the future.       

Filmography: Feature-Length German Animation with Chinese Co-producers, Chinese Topics, or Outsourced to China:

1923-26
The Adventures of Prince Achmed
(Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed)
Director/Writer/Animator: Lotte Reiniger
Artists: Carl Koch, Walter Ruttmann, Berthold Bartosch, Alexander Kardan
Producer: Louis Hagen
Comenius-Film
Genre: Arabian Nights fairy tale
Silhouette film with Chinese episode

1983
Secrets of the Heavenly Book
(Das Himmelsbuch/Tianshu qitan)
Directors: Wang Shuchen, Qian Yunda
Co-Producer: Manfred Durniok
Manfred Durniok Produktion für Film & Fernsehen, Berlin/Shanghai Animation Film Studio
Genre: Chinese fantasy tale
Cel animation
Co-Production

1989
Reynard the Fox
(Reineke Fuchs)
Directors: He Yumen, Zhuang Minjin
Associate Director: Manfred Durniok
Writers: Fu Bing, Zhongli Yao, Michael Kerwer
Based on a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Score: Fang Zheng
Producers: Manfred Durniok, Markus Schächter (ZDF)
Manfred Durniok Produktion für Film & Fernsehen, Berlin/Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF), Mainz/Oriental Communications/Shanghai Animation Film Studio
Genre: Animal fable
2D animation
Co-Production

1996
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
(Schneewittchen und die sieben Zwerge)
Director: Qian Yunda
Producer: Manfred Durniok
Inspired by a story collected by the Brothers Grimm
Manfred Durniok Produktion für Film & Fernsehen, Berlin/Shanghai Animation Film Studio
Genre: Fairy tale
Co-Production

1996-97
Keraban’s Fantastic Voyage
(Kerabans phantastische Reise/Jue Jiang Kaliban)
Director: Hong Hu Zhao
Associate Director: Manfred Durniok
Writers: Günter Rätz, Sibille Rätz, Manfred Durniok, Chen Gui Bao, Wang Da Wei, Hong Hu Zhao
From a novel by Jules Verne
Producer: Manfred Durniok
Manfred Durniok Produktion für Film & Fernsehen, Berlin/Shanghai Animation Film Studio
Genre: Adventure
Puppet animation
Co-Production

1998
Around the World in 80 Days
(Die Reise um die Erde in 80 Tagen)
Director: Hu Zhao Hong
Associate Director: Manfred Durniok
Writers: Günter Rätz, Sibille Rätz, Manfred Durniok, Hu Zhao Hong
From a novel by Jules Verne
Producer: Manfred Durniok
Manfred Durniok Produktion für Film & Fernsehen, Berlin/Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (MDR)/Oriental Communications/Shanghai Animation Film Studio
Genre: Adventure
Puppet animation
Co-Production

1998-1999
From the Earth to the Moon/Trip Around the Moon
(Von der Erde zum Mond/Die Reise um den Mond)
Director: Hu Zhao Hong
Associate Director: Manfred Durniok
Writers: Günter Rätz, Manfred Durniok, Hu Zhao Hong
From a novel by Jules Verne
Producer: Manfred Durniok
Manfred Durniok Produktion für Film & Fernsehen/Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (MDR)/Oriental Communications/Shanghai Animation Film Studio
Genre: Science Fiction
Puppet animation
Co-Production

2000-2001
Five Weeks in a Balloon
(Fünf Wochen im Ballon)
Director: Hong Hu Zhao
Associate Director: Manfred Durniok
Writers: Manfred Durniok, Günter Rätz, Sibille Rätz, Hong Hu Zhao
From a novel by Jules Verne
Producer: Manfred Durniok
Manfred Durniok Produktion für Film & Fernsehen, Berlin/Shanghai Animation Film Studio
Genre: Adventure
Puppet animation
Co-Production

2003-2005
Children of Captain Grant
(Die Kinder des Kapitän Grant)
From a novel by Jules Verne
Manfred Durniok Produktion für Film & Fernsehen, Berlin/Shanghai Animation Film Studio
Genre: Adventure
Puppet animation
Co-Production
(Producer Manfred Durniok passed away during production.)

2005-2006
Laura’s Christmas Star
(Lauras Weihnachtsstern)
Directors: Piet De Rycker, Thilo Graf Rothkirch
Writers: Rolf Giesen, Piet De Rycker
Based on a children’s book by Klaus Baumgart
Producers: Thilo Graf Rothkirch, Maya Gräfin Rothkirch
Rothkirch Cartoon Film/Warner Bros. Germany/Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen
Animation executed in China by 3D Animagics, Beijing
Genre: Christmas fantasy tale
3D animation
Outsourcing

2006-2007
Two Times Lotte
(Das doppelte Lottchen)
Director: Toby Genkel
Writers: Michael Schaack, Rolf Dieckmann
From a children’s book by Erich Kästner
Producer: Michael Schaack
Lunaris Film/TFC Trickompany Filmproduktion/Warner Bros. Germany
Genre: Children’s story
2D animation
Outsourcing

2007-2008
Moonbeam Bear and His Friends
(Der Mondbär – Das große Kinoabenteuer)
Directors: Thomas Bodenstein, Mike Maurus
Writers: Mark Slater, Gabriele M. Walther
From a children’s book by Rolf Fänger and Ulrike Möltgen
Producer: Gabriele M. Walther
Beta Film/Caligari Film
Animation partly executed in China by Sophie Animation Ltd. in Dalian
Genre: Fantasy tale
3D animation
Outsourcing

2007-2009
Laura’s Star and the Mysterious Dragon Nian
(Lauras Stern und der geheimnisvolle Drache Nian)
Directors: Piet De Rycker, Thilo Graf Rothkirch
Writers: Rolf Giesen, Piet De Rycker, Thilo Graf Rothkirch
Based on children’s books by Klaus Baumgart
Score: Guy Cuyvers, Henning Lohner
Pianist: Lang Lang
Producers: Thilo Graf Rothkirch, Maya Gräfin Rothkirch, Jung Chi Gwang
Rothkirch Cartoon Film/Warner Bros. Germany/3D Animagics/Shanghai Media Group
Most of the animation executed in China by 3D Animagics, Beijing
Genre: Fantasy tale
3D animation
The most successful animated feature film from Germany in Chinese cinemas (released in 2011)

2009-2011
Laura’s Star and the Dream Monsters
(Lauras Stern und die Traummonster)
Directors: Ute von Münchow-Pohl, Thilo Graf Rothkirch
Writers: Ute von Münchow-Pohl, Sabine Mädel, Rolf Giesen, Thilo Graf Rothkirch, Klaus Baumgart
Based on a children’s book by Klaus Baumgart
Score: Henning Lohner
Producers: Thilo Graf Rothkirch, Maya Gräfin Rothkirch
Rothkirch Cartoon Film/Warner Bros. Germany
Most of the animation executed in China by 3D Animagics, Beijing
Genre: Fantasy tale
3D animation, stereoscopic
Outsourcing

2009-2011
Little Big Panda
(Kleiner starker Panda)
Directors: Greg Manwaring, Michael Schoemann
Writer: Jörg Tensing
Scenario Consultant: Rolf Giesen
Art Directors: Juan Japl, Miquel Pujol
Score: Detlef A. Schitto, Bernd Wefelmeyer
Producer: Michael Schoemann
Co-Producer: Xiao Xiang Chen
Benchmark Entertainment Picture Productions/Angels Avenue/uFilm/ORB Filmproduktion/Yisang Media Investment
Animation executed in Spain and Belgium
Genre: Fantasy tale
2D animation, stereoscopic
Co-Production

2011-2013
Rabbit without Ears and Two-Eared Chick
(Keinohrhase und Zweiohrküken)
Director: Maya Gräfin Rothkirch
Writers: Klaus Baumgart, Thilo Graf Rothkirch
From a children’s book by Klaus Baumgart and Til Schweiger
Scenario Supervisor: Katharina Wieker
Scenario Consultant: Rolf Giesen
Storyboard Consultant; Piet De Rycker
Producers: Thilo Graf Rothkirch, Maya Gräfin Rothkirch, Til Schweiger, Tom Zickler
Rothkirch Cartoon Film/Warner Bros. Germany/barefoot films
Animation executed in China by 3D Animagics in Beijing
Genre: Fantasy tale
3D animation
Outsourcing

2012-2013
Knight Rusty
(Ritter Rost – Eisenhart und voll verbeult)
Directors: Thomas Bodenstein, Hubert Weiland
Co-Director: Nina Wels
Writers: Mark Slater, Gabriele M. Walther
Based on a children’s book by Jörg Hilbert and Felix Janosa
Score: Andreas Grimm
Producers: Gabriele M. Walther, Irene Wellershoff (ZDF)
Caligari Film/Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen
Animation partly executed in China, by Sophie Animation Ltd. in Dalian
Genre: Fantasy tale
3D animation, stereoscopic
Outsourcing

2013-2014
Little Dragon Coconut
(Der kleine Drache Kokosnuss)
Directors: Hubert Weiland, Nina Wels
Writers: Mark Slater, Gabriele M. Walther
Producer: Gabriele M. Walther
Caligari Film/Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen
Animation partly executed in China by Sophie Animation Ltd. in Dalian
Genre: Fantasy tale
3D animation
Outsourcing

2015-2016
Knight Rusty 2
(Ritter Rost 2 – Das Schrottkomplott)
Directors: Thomas Bodenstein, Marcus Hamann
Writers: Mark Skater, Gabriele M. Walther
Producer: Gabriele M. Walther, Irene Wellershoff (ZDF)
Caligari Film/Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen
Genre: Fantasy tale
3D animation
Outsourcing

2015-2016
Ted Sieger’s Molly Monster
Directors: Michael Bruhn, Michael Ekbladh
Writer: John Chambers
Based on a children’s book by Ted Sieger
Producers: Alexandra Schatz, Richard Lutterbeck
Alexandra Schatz Filmproduktion/Little Monster/Sluggerfilm/Trickstudio Lutterbeck
Animation partly executed in China by Sophie Animation Ltd. in Dalian
Genre: Fantasy tale
2D animation, stereoscopic
Outsourcing

2016-2017
Rabbit School – Guardians of the Golden
(Die Häschenschule – Jagd nach dem goldenen Ei)
Director: Ute von Münchow-Pohl
Writers: Katja Grübel, Dagmar Rehbinder
Inspired by a classic German children’s book by Fritz Koch-Gotha and Albert Sixtus
Producer: Dirk Beinhold
Akkord Film Produktion/Virgin Lands Animated Pictures/NDR
Genre: Fantasy tale
3D animation
Outsourcing

Bio:

Rolf Giesen is a screenwriter and author who lives in Berlin, Germany. He is the author of Chinese Animation: A History and Filmography (McFarland, 2015).

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