Lotte Reiniger: animated film pioneer and standard-bearer for women

The story of the groundbreaking director behind today’s Google doodle and how her fairytale-inspired work made her one of the most important early women in the film industry

Lotte Reiniger, a pioneer in the world of animated film, and a standard-bearer for women in the industry, was born 117 years ago today in Berlin. Her hypnotic films, painstakingly crafted out of snippets of card and wire and animated by hand, have influenced generations of film-makers and artists. She also made one of the world’s first animated features, a whirlwind of a fantasy film called The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). The films, and their enduring charms, are phenomenal, but there are contradictions in the Reiniger story. While we think of Reiniger as a trail-blazer, her work was mostly inspired by antiquated traditions of performance and storytelling. You could also say that her story is also a cautionary one – she worked around the limitations of being a woman in the film industry, rather than storming in to claim her place in the studio.

A pioneer … watch Reiniger’s 1922 film Cinderella.

Film was Reiniger’s passion: as a child she was delighted by the trick films of Georges Méliès, and later the dreamy horrors of Paul Wegener. She was also an enthusiast for the Chinese art of shadow puppetry, creating her own silhouette spectaculars for a parental audience. As a young woman and keen to work with Wegener, she found a job designing silhouettes for the intertitles in his films. Her first step into animation proper was on his film The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1918). Wegener found he could not control live rats (or even guinea pigs) on set, so Reiniger was tasked with animating wooden rodents, stop-motion style. “The projection was a triumph,” Reiniger remembered. “Those rats really moved as erratically as you would expected panicky rats would and they followed the Piper all right.”

Reiniger’s choice of career, and her signature style, was therefore assured. She joined an experimental animation studio, the Berliner Institut für Kulturforschung, where she met avant-gardists including Bertolt Brecht and her future husband Carl Koch. There another important aspect of her career was settled. Reiniger did not work like a film-maker, but as an artist. Another peer who combined experimental art and film work, Hans Richter, said of her that while her films were based on fairytales and modelled after ancient techniques, she “belonged to the avant-garde as far as independent production and courage were concerned”.

The artist in action … Watch The Art of Lotte Reiniger here.

In the following years, Reiniger made six beautiful short films. She collaborated with artists including her husband Richter, Jean Renoir and Walter Ruttman, but the essence of her technique was work that could be completed at home, at a small desk or kitchen table. In this clip you can see Reiniger explain how to create an animation studio at home. “You take your best dining table, cut a hole into it, put a glass plate over it, and over the glass plate some transparent paper …”

Inspiring … watch a clip from The Adventures of Prince Achmed here.

Reiniger may have continued making shorts, if she hadn’t had a windfall. The father of one of her students, a man called Louis Hagen, had invested in film stock during the shaky years of Weimar hyperinflation, and gave the young artist the reels, encouraging her to try her hand at the broader canvas of a feature film. Reiniger responded with The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

Festive spirit … watch a clip from Christmas is Coming here.

During the 1930s, Reiniger and her husband fled Germany (“I didn’t like this whole Hitler thing,” she said) but unable to secure a visa in any one country, they moved from place to place until they settled in London after war. It was in Britain that Reiniger’s career flourished again. She initially made films for the GPO Film Unit but in 1953 Hagen’s son, also called Louis, who had come to the UK as a refugee after being interned in a concentration camp, founded a studio called Primrose Productions. Reiniger made a dozen films for Primrose, which reinvigorated her career for another decade.

Watch the Primrose Productions version of The Star of Bethlehem here.

In the 1960s, Reiniger stopped working and lived quietly in London, but by the 70s her work was being revived and she toured the world talking about her career. In 1979 she made the gorgeous The Rose and the Ring, from a Thackeray story, before dying in 1981, back home in Germany.

Reiniger decribed herself as a “primitive caveman artist”, but her work is anything but simple. Her films have a distinct style, one that was mimicked by several contemporary artists in both commercial and more refined areas (so many early German advertisements use her cut-out method), as well as those who followed her. But Reiniger’s films are so often, if you will excuse the pun, a cut above. The crispness and intricacy of her black, scissored figures, combine with fluid, bouncing animation. As soon as you think that you have spotted a join, or seen the technique behind the movement, the scene changes, another transformation occurs and the picture has been reformed again. The cut-outs are often backed with jewel-like colours, so the impression is of visual richness, rather than stark monochrome. By conjuring fantastic worlds out of paper and light, Reiniger’s films reach us on a deeply emotional level too: we seem to see imagination at work, as when a story is improvised or embellished from memory at a bedside.

A fitting tribute … Lotte Reiniger’s Google doodle.

Today’s Google doodle commemorating Reiniger’s work shows her inside one of her films, moving from her desk through a succession of fairytale scenarios. The animator as artist, surrounded by the fruit of her imagination.


Pamela Hutchinson

The GuardianTramp

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