Animated April: Spotlight on Lotte Reiniger

By Bianca Garner

CharlotteLotte” Reiniger was a German film director and the foremost pioneer of silhouette animation. Perhaps her most famous film is “The Adventures of Prince Achmed”  (1926) which is considered to be the oldest surviving animated feature film. “Prince Achmed” features a silhouette animation technique that Reiniger had invented which involved manipulated cutouts made from cardboard and thin sheets of lead under a camera. She went on to film over 40 films using this technique and her work went on to influence many filmmakers. Reiniger led an extraordinary life, even escaping the Nazi party in 1935 before having to return to Germany in 1944 and being forced to make propanganda films.

Reiniger was born in Berlin 2nd June 1899 to Carl Reiniger and Eleonore Lina Wilhelmine Rakette. At a very early age she was fascinated with the Chinese arts of paper cutting of silhouette puppetry,  and taught herself to cut free-handed paper silhouettes, which she used in her own home-made shadow-theatre. As a teenager, Reiniger developed a love of cinema, first with the films of Georges Méliès for their special effects, then the films of the actor and director Paul Wegener.


Initially she planned to be an actress, studied at the Theatre of Max Reinhardt and used her skill at silhouette portraiture to attract the attention of . He invited her to make silhouettes for the intertitles to his films “Rübezahls Hochzeit” and “Der Rattenfänger von Hameln”. Wegener introduced Reiniger to a group of young men who were setting up an experimental animation studio, the Berliner Institut für Kulturforschung, headed by Hans Cürlis. One member of the group was the film historian Carl Koch, who became Reiniger’s husband, as well as her producer and camera operator.

In 1919 she made her own first film for the institute, “Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens” (The Ornament of a Loving Heart). The five-minute short followed two lovers and an ornament that reflects their moods. The film was very well received, and it led to many more opportunities and connections opening up for Reiniger in the animation industry.

Over the next few years, she made six films whch all produced and photographed by her husband, including the fairytale animations “Aschenputtel” (Cinderella) and “Dornröschen” (The Sleeping Beauty).

In 1923, she was approached by Louis Hagen, who had bought a large quantity of raw film stock as an investment, Hagen asked her to do a feature-length animated film. This wasn’t an easy task, as Reiniger would later recall:

“We had to think twice. This was a never heard of thing. Animated films were supposed to make people roar with laughter, and nobody had dared to entertain an audience with them for more than ten minutes. Everybody to whom we talked in the industry about the proposition was horrified.”

This project came to be known as “The Adventures of Prince Achmed”, which was completed in 1926 and with a runtime of 65 minutes. It’s one of the first animated feature films, with a plot that is a pastiche of stories from “One Thousand and One Nights”. It took three years to complete with each frame having to be painstakingly filmed, and 24 frames were needed per second. Although it failed to find a distributor for almost a year, once premiered in Paris (thanks to the support of Jean Renoir), it became a critical and popular success.

Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed, Die
Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed, Die (The Adventures of Prince Achmed) (1926)

After the completion of “Prince Achmed” Reiniger never again attempted a feature-length animated film. Instead, for the rest of her sixty-year career she focused on short films and on animated sequences for other people’s films. In 1929, she was the co-director with Rochus Gliese, on a part-animation, part-live-action feature, “Die Jagd nach dem Glück” (Running After Luck) but it was a commercial and critical failure). In order to pay the bills she would often resort to book illustrations or commercials.

“Her most famous film is “The Adventures of Prince Achmed”  (1926) which is considered to be the oldest surviving animated feature film. “Prince Achmed” features a silhouette animation technique that Reiniger had invented.”

Reiniger attempted to make another animated feature, inspired by Maurice Ravel‘s opéra “L’enfant et les sortilèges” (The Child and the Bewitched Things), but was unable to clear all of the individual rights to Ravel’s music. When Ravel died in 1937 the clearance became even more complex and Lotte finally abandoned the project.

Aschenputtel (Cinderella) (1922)

With the rise of the Nazi Party, Reiniger and Koch (who had very left-wing and liberal political views) decided to emigrate. However, they found they were unable to obtain a visa to enable them to settle prementately in one location. They spent the period of 1933–1944 moving from country to country, staying as long as visas would allow. With the release of sound film, Reiniger and her husband began to work with music in relation to animation.

At the outbreak of war Koch was in Rome working, Reiniger joined him there and worked as his assistant on “La Tosca” and “Una signora dell’ovest”. During the winter of 1943 they had to reluctantly return to Berlin to care for Reiniger’s sick mother. Her only film during the war years was “Die Goldene Ganz” (The Golden Goose). A hand grenade blast saw many of the original negatives stored in her Potsdam studio being destroyed. All hope wasn’t lost, as luckily there were other prints that existed elsewhere and it was possible to reconstitute the majority of her films, including “Prince Achmed”.

After the war, Reiniger and Koch moved to London, where she made a few short advertising films for John Grierson and his General Post Office Film Unit. The couple set up Primrose Productions along with Louis Hagen Jr., son of the Berlin banker who had financed “Prince Acjmed.” This was considered her most intensely productive period of her career and in the span of two years she created a dozen films for American television, all adapted from classic fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, Wilhelm Hauff, Hans Christian Andersen and from the “One Thousand and One Nights”. In 1954, “The Gallant Little Tailor” was awarded the Silver Dolphin, at the Venice Festival.

Thumbelina (1954)

After Carl Koch’s death in 1963, Reiniger didn’t make another film for ten years, becoming a near-recluse. During these years her and her work were enjoying a revival. In 1969 she was invited to visit Germany for the first time since leaving back in 1935. This led to a rediscovery of her film works in West Germany and to later recognition: in 1972 she was awarded the Filmband in Gold. In 1979, on her 80th birthday, she received the Bundesverdienstkreuz (Order of Merit).

Even in old age, she still continued to make films, including “The Rose and the Ring” in 1979 from the story by Thackeray, and her final film was a very brief short, “Die vier Jahreszeiten” (The Four Seasons) made for the Filmmuseum Düsseldorf the year before she died. Reiniger died in Dettenhausen, Germany, on 19 June 1981, just after her 82nd birthday; leaving behind quite a legacy and some beautiful animation for all of us to enjoy.



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