Animation’s Forgotten Pioneer, Lotte Reiniger

Animation’s Forgotten Pioneer, Lotte Reiniger

By Claire Graman

Here’s a bit of trivia for you: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) wasn’t the first animated feature-length film. Animation’s forgotten pioneer, Lotte Reiniger, almost single-handedly made the most notable early animated film. In 1926, Reiniger created The Adventures of Prince Achmed. She based the film on 1,001 Arabian Nights and assembled it from intricate silhouettes on vivid, colored backgrounds. But Reiniger did much more than Prince Achmed. Today we’ll explore her life and legacy on the rich history of animation.

The fantastical films of George Melies and the art of Chinese puppetry inspired Reiniger to study visual art. Born in 1899 in Berlin, she wanted to be an actress until she heard a lecture given by director Paul Wegener. The lecture inspired her to make her own films. Her first gig was creating wooden puppet rats for Wegener’s 1918 adaptation of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Reiniger then entered the Institute of Cultural Research in Berlin. There she met her future collaborator and husband, art historian Carl Koch.

1919: Reiniger’s First Short Film

Reiniger made her first short film, The Ornament of the Loving Heart in 1919. The film was so popular it ran in theaters for 40 weeks. Reiniger also made commercials, including this playful ad for Nivea skin care products (watch it here on YouTube). In 1924, she worked with the well-known director, Fritz Lang, for a dream sequence in his film Die Nibelungen. Recognized as a talented artist, she ran in social circles of other German artists of the time, including influential playwright Bertolt Brecht.

1924: The Adventures of Prince Achmed

Ironically, the tumultuous economy of 1920s Germany made film-funding profitable. In Reiniger’s first feature length film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, she meticulously matched visuals to music, edited down 250,000 frames into 100,000 with 24 frames a second. This created the effect of fluid, natural movement. She even studied animals at the Berlin zoo to make her animated animals realistic. The film took three years to make. Reiniger was only 27 when it premiered. Despite a troubled opening night (her husband had to scour the streets for a replacement projector lens), Prince Achmed received acclaim in the art worlds of Germany and abroad. The original film would be lost, like many films, in the destruction of World War II, but fortunately a copy survived.

For Prince Achmed, Reiniger pioneered the use of a multiplane camera. In this technique, a stationary camera points down at multiple layers of glass, creating the illusion of depth. Decades later, Walt Disney collaborator Ubi Werks improved on Reinger’s invention, which she called a tricktisch (trick table). Werks sometimes claimed he invented the multiplane camera.

Before and during World War II, Reiniger and her husband left Nazi Germany, working as best they could in other European countries. Eventually, they settled permanently in England, where Reiniger continued making fairy tale films, as seen in this documentary. A later film, Prince Frog (1961), demonstrates the evolution of her style, keeping the stop-motion puppets but including full color with marvelous detail.

Today, the film world recognizes the contributions of Lotte Reiniger, animation’s forgotten pioneer. The Berlin Film Festival awarded her a Golden Reel in 1972, at the age of 73. Lotte Reiniger died in 1981, and only recently received credit due her for her ground-breaking work in film. 

Sadly, her masterpiece, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, like many older films, does not exist on most streaming services. You can find many of Reiniger’s shorter works, however, which are well worth the watch.

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