Born: Charlotte Eleonore Elisabeth Reiniger
Sector: Media (Film and TV)
In 1937, Walt Disney released ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’, often named as the first full-length animated film. This would have come as a surprise to the many cinema-goers who eleven years earlier had trooped off to watch ‘The Adventures of Prince Achmed’ a full-length, animated film directed by Lotte Reiniger, and given it a huge thumbs up, beautiful to watch and ‘as full of incident and as thrilling as a modern drama’. Jean Renoir hailed it as a masterpiece.
Disney’s visual style was totally different to Lotte’s: she was an unrivalled master of silhouette film-making, using cut-out figures to create her animations, with a sense of movement created through jointed parts, tiny changes in position and stop-motion camera techniques. However, he employed the same core film technology, technology originated by Lotte, who in 1923 developed an early form of the multi-plane camera. This was a critical development in animation, giving an effect of greater depth by enabling different layers of artwork to move at different speeds and distances from one another.
Lotte’s pioneering film, her only feature-length work, was made in her native Germany. She started cutting out silhouettes as a very small child and had an amazing gift for it. She created her own shadow puppet theatre and was when she was 17 began creating film titles before beginning on short sequences. Work began on ‘Prince Achmed’ in 1923. For every two seconds of film, 52 separate photographs were needed. In total, 250,000 images were made, 100,000 of which made it into the final film. No wonder it took three years to complete. She was supported in her work by her husband, the writer and film director Karl Koch, whom she married in 1921 and had a committed financial backer in Louis Hagen. She went on to make many more short films as well as a three-part series based on Dr Dolittle. Although she told fairy stories, she was not only targeting her films at children and in some cases, there were satirical elements that were more suited to adult audiences.
In 1936, she came to London and did some work with the GPO Film Unit. Led by John Grierson, the pioneering Scottish documentary film-maker, it produced films that marketed business activities, mainly those of the General Post Office. Its most famous film featured W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Night Mail’. Lotte made a film to accompany A.A.Milne’s poem, ‘The King’s Breakfast’ and spoke to Sight and Sound magazine about her ‘own little habit of producing films with scissor cuts made of paper’. She was always happy to share her approach and in 1970 published a book ‘Shadow Theatres and Shadow Films’.
While she was in London the ‘world-famed’ artist also picked up some commercial work, for example this advertisement for Derry and Toms, the Kensington High Street department store famed for its roof garden.
The shop is long gone but the roof garden remains. (And in case you are wondering about the woman doing the official opening, ‘Mrs Charles Sweeney’, here’s some footage of her low-key wedding…)
When war broke out in 1939, Lotte and her husband tried to gain entry into other countries but were forced to return to Germany. In xxxx, they came back to London and this was where they remained based for the next thirty plus years. They based themselves in the artistic community of the Abbey Arts Centre in Barnet, among painters, sculptors and ceramicists.
In 1954, Louis Hagen’s son, also named Louis, and a man with a remarkable story of his own, set up Primrose Productions, making advertising films and ‘infomercials’ as well as animations. This marked the start of an extremely productive period. While up until now, Lotte had worked on her films alone now she and Carl started to employed a team of 5-6 assistants working across in two studios. In 1954, thirteen ten-minute films were being made for the American market. One, ‘The Gallant Little Tailor’, won first prize in the TV section of the Venice Film Festival in 1955. A film made for the Ministry of Health that year was described as ‘particularly striking..’ where ‘the characters – flies and germs – were silhouetted against coloured backgrounds. In 1956, Lotte created her first full-colour animated short, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and in 1957 another of her films, ‘The Star of Bethlehem’, was shown at the Berlin Film Festival. The BBC was still showing Lotte’s films in the 1980s and Channel 4 included them in their programming until 1991.
Not all of Lotte’s work was animated. For theatrical productions, she provided silhouette characters and costumes. When The Observer decided to stage a special exhibition to celebrate Sixty Years of Cinema in the UK in 1956, they gave the job of creating it to the innovative designer, Richard Buckle. He brought in both established artists such as John Piper, Hugh Casson and Osbert Lancaster as well as new talent like Astrid Zydower to design the rooms. Lotte told the story of the film prophets – Lucretius, Ptolemy and Da Vinci – in cut out form and her own films were also screened. In print media, her distinctive silhouettes were used to illustrate the Greek Myths re-told by Roger Lancelyn-Green and books of nursery stories. The Illustrated London News was a repeat client for its Christmas editions. Images (c) Illustrated London News / Mary Evans Picture Library.
She was still working into the early 1970s and was interviewed on TV and appearing at film festivals and theatres around the UK until 1979. Right at the end of her life, she returned to Germany, where she died in 1981.
Lotte Reiniger is not a household name but the people influenced by her work are, including Francis Ford Coppola and Tim Burton. It shows up in cartoons and even a Harry Potter film. It could even be argued to extend into the realm of contemporary art through the silhouette work of Kara Walker and William Kentridge. Although around 15% of Lotte’s output has been lost, much survives and some is available to view via the BFI. You you can even see the magician herself at work in 1970 here.
Film direction is another field where women are still woefully under-represented. In 2019, only 12 of the 100 highest-grossing films were directed by women. The person who makes the picture influences what stories we see and the perspective taken in their telling. Bird’s Eye View is a UK-based organisation established in 2003 by Rachel Millward to promote and celebrate the work of women film-makers. It was Birds Eye View that introduced me to Lotte Reiniger in 2010 and it continues to give a platform to women’s work today. If you want to enjoy a wider range of stories and perspectives on screen, support them and reclaim the frame.
Special thanks to Mary Evans Picture Library for the use of the imagery in this post.
Sources include: ‘Scissors Make Film’ – an interview with Lotte Reiniger, Sight and Sound, Spring 1936; The Stage 22/4/1954; Kinematograph Weekly 25/8/1955; ‘Magic in her Scissors’ by Freddy Bloom in Britannia and Eve 1/9/1955; The Sphere 23/6/1956
‘National Identity, Gender and Genre: The Multiple Marginalization of Lotte Reiniger and The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)’ by K Vivian Taylor (2011) Graduate Theses and Dissertations; ‘The Animated Adventures of Lotte Reiniger’ by David Sterritt (2020) Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol 37 Issue 4.