Among the great figures in animated film, Lotte Reiniger stands alone. No one else has taken a specific animation technique and made it so utterly her own. To date she has no rivals, and for all practical purposes the history of silhouette animation begins and ends with Reiniger. Taking the ancient art of shadow-plays, as perfected above all in China and Indonesia, she adapted it superbly for the cinema.
She was born in Berlin to cultured parents, and from an early age showed an exceptional and, it seems, self-taught ability to cut free-handed paper silhouettes, which she used in her own home-made shadow-theatre. Initially she planned to be an actress, studied with Max Reinhardt, and used her skill at silhouette portraiture to attract the attention of the film director Paul Wegener. He invited her to make silhouettes for the intertitles to his films Rübezahls Hochzeit (Germany, 1916) and Der Rattenfänger von Hameln (Germany, 1918).
Wegener introduced Reiniger to a group of young men who were setting up an experimental animation studio, the Berliner Institut für Kulturforschung, headed by Hans Cürlis. One member of the group was the film historian Carl Koch. In 1919 she made her own first film for the institute, Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens (The Ornament of a Loving Heart). In 1921 Reiniger married Koch, who designed her animation studio and became her producer and camera operator until his death in 1963.
From the first, Reiniger was attracted to timeless fairy-tale stories for her animations. Aschenputtel (Cinderella) and Dornröschen (The Sleeping Beauty) (both 1922) were among her earliest subjects. The avant-garde artist and filmmaker Hans Richter, a lifelong friend, wrote of her that "she belonged to the avant-garde as far as independent production and courage were concerned," but that the spirit of her work harked back to an earlier, more innocent age. Jean Renoir, another close friend and passionate admirer of her work, described her films as a "visual expression of Mozart's music". Indeed Mozart, and other operatic themes, often provided her with subjects, as in such films as Carmen (Germany, 1933), Papageno (Germany, 1935), Helen La Belle (1957, drawing on Offenbach) and A Night in a Harem (1958, drawing on Mozart).
From 1923 to 1926, Reiniger worked with Carl Koch, Walther Ruttmann and Berthold Bartosch on her most famous work, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, often credited as the first full-length animated film. Financing for this project was provided by a young Berlin banker, Louis Hagen, who had seen and admired her previous work. When inflation attacked the Deutschmark in 1923, Hagen had converted some of his money into film stock which he then offered to Reiniger to make a feature-length film on any subject she chose. He also built a studio for her above the garage of his house in Potsdam.
After completing Prince Achmed while still in her twenties, Reiniger never again attempted a feature-length animated film; for the rest of her sixty-year career she concentrated on shorts, mostly of one or two reels in length, and on sequences to be inserted in other people's films. (She also co-directed, with Rochus Gliese, a part-animation, part-live-action feature, Die Jagd nach dem Glück (Running After Luck) (Germany, 1929), but it was a commercial and critical failure.) When funding ran short she would resort to book illustrations or commercials. As early as 1922 she made Das Geheimnis der Marquise (The Marquise's Secret) for Nivea skincare products.
Altogether Reiniger made nearly sixty films, of which some forty survive. Her technique, already amazingly accomplished in Prince Achmed, gained yet further in subtlety and balletic grace during the Thirties in such films as Harlekin (Harlequin, 1931) and Der kleine Schornsteinfeger (The Little Chimney Sweep, 1934). The delicacy and fantasy of fairy-tales suited her intricate, imaginative technique, and they make up the bulk of her output.
After the Nazis seized power Reiniger turned her back on Germany, "because I didn't like this whole Hitler thing and because I had many Jewish friends whom I was no longer allowed to call friends". In December 1935 she and Koch came to England where they made The King's Breakfast (1936) for John Grierson and other films for the GPO Film Unit. She also contributed a shadow-play sequence to Renoir's La Marseillaise (France, 1937).
At the outbreak of war Koch was in Rome working with Renoir. Reiniger joined him there and worked as his assistant on La Tosca (Italy, 1941, completed by Koch after Renoir quit Italy in haste) and Una signora dell'ovest (Italy, 1942). At Christmas 1943 they reluctantly returned to Berlin to care for Reiniger's sick mother. Her only film during the war years was Die Goldene Ganz (The Golden Goose, 1944). Many of the original negatives stored in her Potsdam studio were destroyed by a hand-grenade blast. Luckily prints existed elsewhere and it was possible to reconstitute the majority of her films, including Prince Achmed.
After the war, the couple took British citizenship and settled in the Abbey Arts Centre, an artists' estate in north London, where they set up Primrose Productions along with Louis Hagen Jr, son of the Berlin banker who had financed Prince Achmed. This was the most intensely productive period of Reiniger's career: in two years she created a dozen films for American television, all adapted from classic fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, Wilhelm Hauff, Hans Christian Andersen and from the One Thousand and One Nights. The Gallant Little Tailor (1954) was awarded a prize, the Silver Dolphin, at the Venice Festival.
After Carl Koch's death in 1963 Reiniger made no films for ten years, becoming a near-recluse. But her films were enjoying a revival, and in 1969 she was invited to visit her native country for the first time since her emigration. This led to a rediscovery of her film works in West Germany and to late recognition: in 1972 the artist was awarded the Filmband in Gold and in 1979, on her 80th birthday, she received the Bundesverdienstkreuz (Order of Merit).
In the early 70s Reiniger was persuaded to embark on a lecture tour of North America, where she described herself as "a primitive caveman artist". Inspired by the warmth and affection she encountered, she resumed work, and in her last years made two films for Canada, including the exquisite The Rose and the Ring (1979) from the story by Thackeray. This, her penultimate film, showed that her 80-year-old fingers had lost none of their magic. Reiniger's final film was a very brief short, Die vier Jahreszeiten (The Four Seasons, 1980), made for the Filmmuseum Düsseldorf the year before she died.