German artist, world famous pioneer and maker of animated films. Lotte Reiniger’s work belongs to the tradition of the delicate, hand-cut silhouettes and lantern-lit shadow puppets which became fashionable in Western Europe in the 18th century both as portraiture and in the “Ombres Chinoises” (see Shadow Theatre).
Reiniger linked the tradition for the first time to the making of motion pictures when it was still a new art form, and invented new techniques and effects to animate her exquisitely cut and jointed black characters which played against scenery made from tracing paper shaded from black to grey. The puppets were made of card, paper and thin lead jointed with wire, and were arranged flat on a glass table lit from below with a stills camera above, all the scenes animated frame by frame by hand. Twenty-four frames were shot for one second of action, often with only Reiniger herself to animate the scenery and the many characters, and to arrange the lighting effects. The technique involved considerable planning, versatility, concentration and talent for understanding the movement of the characters. In all her work she was actively supported by her husband Carl Koch, also a skilled animator who master-minded many of the technical processes involved in the film-making, leaving Reiniger free to design, scissor-cut and bring to life her witty and charming characters and creatures. Occasionally working with other gifted collaborators, they invented a new language to tell stories on film. Problems encountered and overcome were, for example, the creation of the illusion of weight and gravity, sea waves and storms, perspective and depth of focus, tracking shots, long shots and close-ups, zooms and movements timed exactly to the music employed.
Born and brought up in Berlin, Lotte Reiniger joined the Max Reinhardt School of acting there in 1916. Here she met actor and filmmaker Paul Wegener who admired her swift and accurate silhouette portraits cut out with scissors, and commissioned her to illustrate the titles for his film Der Rattenfänger von Hameln (The Pied Piper of Hamelin). She also produced some animated rats for the action when the real rats employed ran away. Thus her performing talent was diverted to the animation of her silhouettes.
At the age of 20 she made her first complete film, a “short” entitled Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens (The Ornament of the Loving Heart, 1919), commissioned by the Institut für Kulturforschung, in which she met Carl Koch whom she married two years later in 1921. Her technique involved the live articulation of the puppets in front of the camera, not yet stop-frame animation. Walter Ruttman, Berthold Bartosch and Alexander Kardan, among other artists, helped with the experiments. In those early days she made many more short silhouette films – Der Stern von Bethlehem (The Star of Bethelehem, 1921), Aschenputtel (Cinderella, 1922), Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty, 1922), Der fliegende Koffer (The Flying Trunk, 1922) – and also worked for other film-makers, including Fritz Lang, designed sets and costumes for theatre plays and paper-cut illustrations for books.
Her most notable achievement was her production of the first feature-length (66 minutes) stop-frame animated film, Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed, 1923-1926), which earned for Reiniger a pioneering place in cinema history. Bertolt Brecht helped to write the invitations for the film’s première which was also attended by Fritz Lang, G.W. Pabst, Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya. At the Paris première, Reiniger and Koch were introduced to French film-maker Jean Renoir and they became life-long friends. Carl subsequently worked on some Renoir films, contributing to La Grande Illusion and La Règle du Jeu. Reiniger made a shadow sequence for Renoir’s short film for the French Trades Union Movement, La Marsellaise, and Renoir and his wife played as actors in a mixed animation and live-action film produced by Reiniger and Koch, Die Jagd nach dem Glück (Running after Luck, 1930).
Lotte Reiniger’s own silhouette films of the 1920s and 1930s became more and more skilful, especially in their mixing of music with the puppet action. These included Dr. Dolittle mit seinen Tieren (Dr Doolittle and His Animals, 1928), based on the story by Hugh Lofting, Harlekin (Harlequin, 1931), a parody of Georges Bizet’s Carmen (1933), Papageno (using the characters from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, 1935), and Galathea: Das lebende Marmorbild (Galatea: The Living Marble Statue, 1935).
During the Nazi occupation of Germany the couple suffered terrible losses and narrow escapes, but their many good friends provided help. In 1936 they went to England to join John Grierson and Cavalcanti at the GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit. There they co-operated with notable musicians including Benjamin Britten on a film The Tocher (the Scottish word for dowry) and Peter Gellhorn, chorus master to the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus. Eric Walter White wrote a book called Walking Shadows about Reiniger and early “trick” filmmaking. In 1940 Reiniger joined her husband in Rome where he had taken over the direction of Renoir’s film La Tosca when Renoir was recalled to France. From there the two returned to Germany to care for Reiniger’s mother, in time to face the battles for Berlin and the subsequent hardships and starvation of its citizens. In the crisis precious film and equipment was lost. After the war and the partition of Germany they returned to England where they remained to start a new life in an artists’ community in north London. They were befriended by puppeteers Jan Bussell and Ann Hogarth (of Hogarth Puppets), and Louis Hagen, son of the man who had financed the making of Prince Achmed. New contacts were forged with BBC Television and more fairy-tale films and real-time shadow presentations for television (the rising medium at the time) followed.
Louis Hagen founded Primrose Productions, an Anglo-American TV venture, with Vivian Milroy, director of the original shadow shows, and the stories previously made were made again as stop-frame films: Cinderella, Good King Wenceslas, Caliph Stork, The Frog Prince, Papageno, Sleeping Beauty, Jorinda and Jorindel, followed by new titles: Snow White and Rose Red, The Magic Horse, The Three Wishes, The Grasshopper and the Ant, The Little Chimney Sweep, Hansel and Gretel, Thumbelina and Jack and the Beanstalk.
In 1955 Lotte Reiniger was awarded the Silver Dolphin prize at the Venice Biennale Exhibition for the best Television Art Film, The Gallant Little Tailor (1954). However, the arrival of colour television made films in black and white a thing of the past, so Reiniger began to experiment with new techniques. Her silhouette films developed two new styles, one using a mix of black card with coloured gelatines and the other, figures cut from opaque coloured papers, with joints carefully hidden, and lit both from above and below. Using this second style she made filmed inserts for some theatre pantomimes and two short unfinished films, The Seraglio and Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène. The company formed to produce these ran out of money and both films and equipment were confiscated.
In 1963 Koch died and Lotte lost not only a beloved husband but also half of her production unit. To make more films seemed impossible but her work continued in other fields. She illustrated books, made her own live shadow productions of toy theatre size which she toured to schools, gave lectures, made more figures for television programmes and wrote an excellent book on her filming techniques and shadow puppet styles, Shadow Theatres and Shadow Films.
In her 70’s, semi-retired, the world of cinema thought it time to honour her unique talents. In 1972 she received a Golden Reel Award in Germany for her outstanding contribution to German cinema. There followed exhibitions in Paris and tours to the United States and Canada and in 1974 the National Film Board of Canada, originally set up by John Grierson (the same who was formerly of the GPO Film Unit) and famous for its animated films, decided to invite her to work again. George and Priscilla Martin were the producers for two new works, Reiniger’s first in twelve years, which used silhouettes with coloured gelatines. One was Aucassin and Nicolette (1975) and the other The Rose and the Ring (1979). In 1980 she returned to Germany where, in 1986, she died, in Dettenhausen, West Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland or BRD, Federal Republic of Germany or FRG).
Her legacy was over fifty films, personally made, and the love of all who knew her. Lotte Reiniger had fairy fingers that could fashion with amazing speed delicate, lively and humorous silhouettes, snipped out with no more than a few sketches to guide her. Most of her work can be found in the British Film Institute, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and in the homes of friends across the world.
- Bendazzi, Giannalberto. Cartoons. Le cinéma d’animation, 1892-1992. Paris: Liana Levi, 1991, pp. 66-69.
- Bendazzi, Giannalberto. Le Film d’animation. Grenoble: La Pensée sauvage/JICA, 1985, 58-62.
- Reiniger, Lotte. Shadow Theatres and Shadow Films. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1970; rpt. Plays, Inc. 1975; rpt. Kalmback Publishing Company, Books Division, 1975.
- White, Eric Walter. Walking Shadows: An Essay on Lotte Reiniger’s Silhouette Films. Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, 1931.