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When you think of early animated films, you likely think of Walt Disney and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. But there was actually a woman who was a pioneer of animated films before the Walt Disney Studios and made what some consider to be the first feature-length animated film. Though she is largely forgotten today, Lotte Reiniger made about seventy films using stop-motion and live-action. Not all of her films have survived, and some of those that did are in poor condition, which likely contributes to the lack of recognition she receives today. Her films were mostly based on myths, fairy tales, and fables and included titles like Dr. Doolittle (1928), Carmen (1933), and Papageno (1935).
Charlotte Reiniger was born in 1899 in Berlin, a city full of culture and the arts. Reiniger originally wanted to be an actress but was also a gifted artist. She worked on her first film, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, in 1919 alongside her theatre teacher Paul Wegener. She was very involved in Berlin and was friends with German artists like Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang, and G. W. Pabst. At the Institute for Cultural Research in Berlin, Reiniger made many important artistic connections and met art historian Carl Koch who would become her collaborator and husband. At the Institute, she took part in making educational films and exploring experimental animation. She sometimes struggled to find funding for her films, but banker and patron Louis Hagen helped fund her The Adventures of Prince Achmed.
Reiniger spent much of the World War II years abroad in Europe, before returning to Berlin to care for her mother in the mid-1940s. After the war, she and her husband left Germany permanently and settled in England. Reiniger retired from filmmaking after her husband’s death in 1963. However, she was presented with the Golden Reel Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1972 and went on a lecture tour of Canada and the United States sponsored by the Goethe Institute two years later. With this renewed interest in her work, she came out of retirement to make a few more films in the late 1970s. Reiniger died on June 19, 1981, in Germany at the age of 82 years old.
Reiniger’s unique artistic style consisted of silhouettes formed into stories using motion capture techniques. She studied art at the Charlottenburger Waldschule school in her youth and learned how to cut designs into paper to create intricate shapes. Her childhood love for making silhouettes grew into an exciting form of early animated film as she used paper and cardboard cut-out figures. She created hinges to move the bodies and used beautiful backgrounds for her creations to take place on. Reiniger developed an early multiplane camera set-up (that would later inspire a camera used by Disney) that she called her “trick table.” Panes of glass allowed for a layered effect and provided depth in her films.
Reiniger created an impressive number of films, particularly considering the war’s turmoil that cut through her career. She made the transition from silent to sound cinema and from black and white to color film. She created both feature-length films and shorts and contributed to live-action as well as silhouette films. She worked on early film advertisements for products like Nivea soap. In addition to creating the artwork for the films, she also was a screenwriter and skilled editor.
The breadth of Reiniger’s work cannot be understated, as it stretches across genres and countries. The first film she directed, The Ornament of the Enamoured Heart, was very well received in 1919 upon premiere. She went on to make many films based on fairy tales and a series of short films parodying popular operas. During the war, she had to make some German propaganda films like The Golden Goose in 1944. Later, while living in England, she directed a series of short films for the BBC. Her work was very tied to and inspired by classical music, and she worked with a variety of composers. In addition to being a filmmaker, Reiniger was a theatre designer and an illustrator, skilled in watercolor and ink.
Reiniger’s best-known work is The Adventures of Prince Achmed, released in 1926, after working on it for several years. Some consider it to be the first full-length animated film, which undoubtedly marked a critical moment in film history. She completed this tale of comedy, romance, and battles based on the Arabian Nights stories with a crew of just five people.
Reiniger’s impact has often been overlooked in favor of other famous animators, notably Walt Disney. Perhaps this is because her films sometimes struggled to find an audience with their childlike subjects but darker tones. In her own time, her work was put down by critics for being frivolous and not directly addressing the political situation of the 1930s and 1940s. Despite all of this, her impact is still felt today. Her style even inspired the “The Tale of the Three Brothers” animation, done by Ben Hibon, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 in 2010. Reiniger left behind many documents like sketches, screenplays, diaries, and letters that would be an excellent subject for a major documentary. Reiniger’s work is so detailed and intricate that it’s hard to conceptualize how it was created with the early technology of the day. Her work today is largely unknown, but she has paved the path for other female animators like Jennifer Lee, the writer and director of Frozen and Frozen II and current Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Studios (https://ff2media.com/blog/2020/04/27/with-frozen-franchise-jennifer-lee-makes-history-at-disney/). Reiniger’s body of work deserves more attention for its beauty and importance to the history of film and, in particular, animation.
© Nicole Ackman (9/9/20)
The Adventures of Prince Achmed aired on Turner Classic Movies’s Women Make Film festival. See their coverage of the movie here!
Top Photo: From Thumbelina.
Middle Photo: From Dr. Doolittle and His Animals.
Bottom Photo: From The Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Photo Credits: University Arts Foundation