Reiniger, Lotte (1899–1981)

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Reiniger, Lotte (1899–1981)

Talented German film animator who produced pioneering works in the early 1920s and continued with a productive career for the next 50 years. Pronunciation: LOTT-uh RYE-niger. Born in Berlin, Germany, on June 2, 1899; died in Dettenhausen, West Germany, on June 19, 1981; daughter of Karl Reiniger (a banker) and Eleonore Reiniger; studied with Max Reinhardt, Berlin, 1916–17; studied with Paul Wegener at the Berlin Institut für Kulturforschung, 1918–19; married Carl Koch (an art historian and fellow filmmaker), in 1921 (died December 1, 1963).

Began career as animator (1918); completed first full-length animated film (1926); left Germany for England (1935 or 1936); worked on films in Italy (1939–45); returned to Berlin (1944 or 1945); settled in England (1949); received first prize, Venice Film Festival (1955); received Deutsche Film Prize, Berlin Film Festival (1972); produced final silhouette films in Canada (1974–78); settled in Dettenhausen, West Germany, made the subject of special program and symposium, American Film Festival (1980); honored by Museum of Modern Art, New York (1986).

Selected films:

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926); Dr. Doolittle and His Animals (1927–28); Carmen (1933); Papageno (1935); Snow White and Rose Red (1955); Jack and the Beanstalk (1955); Thumbelina (1955); Aucassin and Nicolette (1974); The Rose and the Ring (1979).

Lotte Reiniger had the distinction of creating the first full-length animated film. In the years between 1923 and 1926, employing handcut silhouettes and a stand she herself had designed, she thereby anticipated the work that Walt Disney's studio would do a decade later. In both silent films and those of the sound era, her work became known as models of the animator's art. In a tribute to Reiniger at the American Film Festival in 1980, the year before her death, fellow silhouette artist Diana Bryant remarked on her ability to "create an illusion even with the gesture of one finger." The resulting movement in a Reiniger film "is so superb that after the first few seconds you forget you are looking at flat paper."

The art of animation, in which Reiniger distinguished herself, preceded the invention of film. Attempts to give drawings the appearance of motion have been traced back to the repetitive images of athletes on ancient Egyptian murals. To create this same effect, the Greeks painted multiple images of a single individual on their vases. In the first half of the 19th century, Belgium's Joseph Plateau and England's William G. Horner invented machines that permitted the viewer to see an apparently moving picture. These machines employed such devices as revolving wheels on which pictures had been placed; the customer watched the changing image through a viewing slot or on a mirror. In 1891, using carbon lights, mirrors, and a revolving drum with hand-colored pictures, France's Emile Reynaud took the process a crucial step further. He projected a moving image on a screen to create a 15-minute show for his Parisian audiences. A musical accompaniment added a further dimension.

The invention of the motion-picture camera and projector made possible the animated films that played so large a role in the popular culture of the 20th century. Cinema became the medium in which Reiniger and other great animators of the modern era have worked. With the camera and the projector, a series of changing images could now be photographed frame by frame, then replayed rapidly before an audience to create the illusion of motion. These images could come from a number of different sources. Artists could make a series of drawings, abstract or realistic, to create a cartoon. Puppets, whose poses could be subtly adjusted from one frame to another, provided an additional means to produce the same effect. Silhouette animation, the art that Reiniger was to lift to its greatest heights, used flat cut-out figures, made up of joined parts that could be moved at will. These were photographed with each pose slightly different from the preceding one.

The growing enthusiasm for animation is reflected in French poet Guillaume Apollinaire's 1914 prediction that it was "the thing of the future." He was referring to the germinal work done by French painter Léopold Survage whose set of almost 200 abstract watercolors, designed to be viewed one after the other, was a crucial step toward filmed animation. "I will animate my painting," Survage declared in 1914. "I will give it movement…. I am creating a new visual art in time, that of colored rhythm and rhythmic color."

In these same prewar years, an obscure Englishman, C. Armstrong, apparently preceded Reiniger's techniques for creating an animated film. Armstrong moved flat models with joined parts slightly, photographing each new pose and linking the frames to produce the illusion of motion. Meanwhile, Ladislas Starevitch, a former scientist from Eastern Europe, made complex wooden models of insects and animals with separable, movable body parts. Manipulating these, he produced films based on puppet animation.

Lotte Reiniger was born in Berlin on June 2, 1899, the only child of Karl Reiniger, a bank official, and Eleonore Reiniger . Little has been recorded about her early life and family background,

but some sources note that even as a child she put on shadow shows, including plays from Shakespeare. In these childhood productions, the future animator already displayed her gifts in cutting elegant and graceful silhouettes with nothing more than a pair of scissors and her own sense of a correct pattern. She recalled in 1936 how she found herself cutting silhouettes "almost as soon as I could manage to hold a pair of scissors." Her family apparently encouraged her artistic interests. Attending a lecture by film pioneer Paul Wegener in 1915, she took to heart his message about the possibilities of that medium.

Reiniger was educated at Max Reinhardt's theater school in Berlin. Despite her fondness for acting, she found herself most comfortable in the world of silhouettes and shadow theater. Her debut in producing filmed silhouettes came in 1916; these were handcut figures designed as titles for a film by Wegener, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Wegener had discovered her while she was cutting silhouettes behind the stage in Reinhardt's theater. She performed another task for Wegener, finding a way to move wooden rats and guinea pigs for a sequence in the film; Wegener had tried and failed to capture this part of the story using real animals. Her first silhouette film, The Ornament of the Loving Heart, a brief piece completed in 1919, began her extensive career in creating works in this genre.

Wegener introduced Reiniger to a circle of young artists who had formed a studio to produce animated works, one of whom was Carl Koch, Reiniger's future husband. Reiniger and her colleagues became important innovators in the technique of animation, creating their own tools such as a special animation stand with different planes upon which to place silhouettes of various sizes, allowing them to film complex scenes with different figures in the foreground and background. "Animation was in its infancy," wrote Reiniger. "The whole field was virgin soil and we had all the joys of explorers in an unknown country."

The Adventures of Prince Achmed, which Reiniger finished in 1926 after three years of devoted labor, is considered by most film historians to be the first full-length animated film. Described by Cecile Starr as "a tale of sorcery and splendor, a kidnapped princess, a magic horse, and friendly and monstrous creatures," the film was financed by a German banker, Louis Hagen, who had been impressed by Reiniger's early work. As Reiniger recalled in 1970, Hagen's plan for a full-length picture in silhouettes at first raised a wave of skepticism in her and in the filmmakers whom she consulted. "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."

Undaunted by the task and unencumbered by close ties to the existing film industry, Reiniger decided to accept the assignment. Other leading figures in experimental movie making, who likewise felt themselves outside the ranks of established filmmakers, accepted her invitation to join in the project. These included Koch, whom she had married in 1921, and such luminaries as Walter Ruttmann and Berthold Bartosch. Notes film historian Ally Acker , this talented crew drew on "a compendium of experimental techniques." Bartosch, for example, was a former architect who had produced animated educational films in both Vienna and Berlin since 1918. Ruttmann, after four years of service in World War I, had given up a painting career to enter the field of animation, and in 1921 he had taken the novel step of screening an abstract animated film for a general audience. Their combined ability to create realistic backgrounds augmented Reiniger's talent for producing lifelike figures.

The film was made in a garage studio at Hagen's home in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam. Decades later, Reiniger still remembered the low roof in the attic studio and the need to place the glass plate for the silhouettes close to the floor in order to situate the camera above it. To move her figures, she had to kneel on the seat of an old automobile. Prince Achmed was filmed on five reels and ran for more than an hour. It required more than 250,000 photographs to produce its effects, each second of film containing 24 separate shots.

Reiniger had to study the actual movement of people and animals in order to produce seemingly natural movement on the part of her artificial creations. She cut out her figures freehand, making smaller and larger versions of the same figure for use in close-ups or more distant shots. Backgrounds were produced by using layers of tissue paper. Her cutouts were made from black cardboard and thin lead. Each arm and leg was a separate piece joined to the body by wire hinges. Reiniger produced the emotional effects she sought by moving the cutouts slightly with her fingers. By placing a strong light below the glass animation table, she made the black cutout figures highly visible while the same light made wire hinges disappear. A wire attachment in the camera moved the film one frame at a time, as Reiniger delicately altered the position of her figures.

Reiniger's skill in this art became renowned. One of the key scenes in Prince Achmed exemplifies the complex results of her efforts. In it two characters, the good witch and the sorcerer, are battling for a magic lamp. As the fight proceeds, the two figures change into different animals, and their struggle conclude with each throwing flames at the other. In later years, one of her young collaborators, animator Pat Martin, described how "the beauty of the outcome" disguised the tedious, skilled labor that went into the finished product. "For each tiny sequence," only a few seconds long, required "sitting in the dark, moving each little figure a fraction of an inch at a time before shooting."

The film's plot came from The Arabian Nights, and, like the Disney films that appeared a decade later, it was designed for children. Prince Achmed, described by Gwendolyn Foster as "one of the most innovative early animation films in history," brought together Reiniger's mastery of silhouette animation and the techniques of Asian shadow plays. Shadow plays in countries like India, China, and Thailand were traditionally used to tell a story by means of movable figures made of non-transparent material whose images were projected on a screen. They had first appeared in Europe in the 17th century.

With the help of Berthold Bartosch, Reiniger injected images of waves to accompany a sea journey in the plot. She added depth to much of the film by making separate negatives of figures she and her collaborators had created, then combining them to compose a single image. For example, Bartosch's ability to pierce a piece of cardboard, to move it gradually for a series of photographs, and then to superimpose one shot over another, created what Eric Walter White described as "a sky of stars moving slowly … in different directions and at different speeds." Ruttmann helped produce his effects by using materials such as sand and soap, and he also employed mirrors to add other effects to his designs. Weeks of tedious preparation were needed for many of the more complicated portions of the film.

Despite its imaginative and stunning effects, some critics at the time found the 1926 film too long for an animated piece, but others called it "almost faultless," an achievement filled with "spirit and grace." Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney's first full-length animation feature, would not be released for another 11 years, in 1937.

Reiniger largely abandoned such lengthy films after completing Prince Achmed. In the late 1920s, now committed to making shorter animated works, she created three Dr. Doolittle films. The second Doolittle film contained one of Reiniger's most famous sequences: the forming of the monkey bridge. As Eric White, a longtime student of her work, writes, this portion of the film, with its complex acrobatics, shows how "Lotte Reiniger articulates her figures with such perfect justice and reasonable fantasy that the illusion is never broken."

She had mixed success, however, in maintaining the circle of talented animators who had worked with her between 1923 and 1926. Bartosch was a key collaborator in the Dr. Doolittle films, producing the illusion of a snowstorm and, as in Prince Achmed, a seascape. His partnership with Reiniger lasted for nearly a decade. On the other hand, Ruttmann, also Reiniger's key collaborator, gave up animation and turned to documentary filmmaking. Reiniger's attempt in 1929 at a live-action, full-length production, Running after Luck, failed, but she was able to salvage a two-reel animated segment of the film that could stand alone.

Jean Renoir">

She is an artist and her work would be as good if instead of working with film she had been a painter or a musician.

Jean Renoir

The advent of sound in films gave Reiniger new challenges for her skills. She now created a number of works featuring a musical background. Mozart's The Magic Flute was the musical centerpiece for Reiniger's Papageno, with the visual images designed to accompany the operatic score. Similarly, Carmen was an animated play composed to match the tunes of Bizet's opera. Despite the difficulty of pairing her images to a great work of music, Reiniger claimed to be inspired by the challenge. Papageno offered audiences a series of particularly striking images as Reiniger's figures went through apparently miraculous transformations. One such metamorphosis saw eggs hatched to produce human babies. Another showed birds transformed into dancing girls.

Reiniger and Koch moved to England in the mid-1930s and remained there for several years. A notable success for Reiniger, tapping the work she had done on Prince Achmed more than a decade before, was the shadow-play portion of French director Jean Renoir's 1938 film La Marseillaise. She also completed numerous children's films in Britain. Material on Reiniger and Koch during the war years is scanty, but they evidently returned to the Continent and spent most of World War II in Italy. Some sources suggest that Reiniger returned to Germany in 1944; others state that she went back to her homeland only after the conflict had come to a close.

In 1949, Reiniger settled in Britain, where she spent most of the next three decades making films for the BBC. The development of television gave Reiniger, who often worked in collaboration with her husband, a new outlet in which to display her abilities. She finished more than a dozen animated films based on myths and fairy tales, including Aladdin, The Grasshopper and the Ant, and Thumbelina. Widowed in 1963, she gave up her career in filmmaking for a prolonged period of time.

After 11 years devoted to theatrical productions, Reiniger received an invitation in 1974 to make films for the National Film Board of Canada. A notable work that she created for them was Aucassin and Nicolette, finished in 1974. With her health deteriorating, she returned to West Germany in 1980 and spent the remaining months of her life in the small village of Dettenhausen, south of Stuttgart, where she died on June 19, 1981.

Reiniger is notable for the sheer duration of her career. It extended from 1918 to a final production in 1980. But she has received her highest tributes for the artistic mastery that she achieved and applied during these decades. Working with nail scissors, black paper, and thin sheets of metal, Lotte Reiniger multiplied two-dimensional silhouettes on a set of flat glass screens into a complex and wondrous film world. Throughout her career, she was able to apply her artistic delicacy to produce a magical flexibility in her characters. Writes Jean Renoir: "Artistically, I have to see her as a visual expression of Mozart's music."


Acker, Ally. Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema 1896 to the Present. NY: Continuum, 1991.

The Annual Obituary, 1981. Edited by Janet Pudell. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1981.

Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Women Film Directors: An International Bio-critical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.

Russett, Robert, and Cecile Starr. Experimental Animation: An Illustrated Anthology. NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1976.

White, Eric Walter. Walking Shadows: An Essay on Lotte Reiniger's Silhouette Films. London: Hogarth Press, 1931.

suggested reading:

Halas, John. Masters of Animation. Topsfield, MA: Salem House, 1987.

Reiniger, Lotte. Shadow Theatres and Shadow Films. London: B.T. Batsford, 1970.

White, Eric Walter. The Little Chimney Sweep (after the Silhouette Film by Lotte Reiniger). Bristol, Eng.: White and White, 1936.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California