Women in Film History - Profile #2

This is the second in a 5-part series celebrating Women’s History Month. Read the first here.

Lotte Reiniger (1899-1981)

Lotte Reiniger’s absence from film history is a particularly egregious case of erasure. Reiniger’s two most significant achievements—creating the first full-length animated film and inventing the multi-plane camera— are widely credited as the achievements of Walt Disney, despite the fact that Walt Disney closely studied her work and was obviously influenced by it. She was a pioneer of silhouette animation, and her work is so singular that to this day the look of her films is unique.

Lotte Reiniger was born in Berlin and started creating silhouettes as a child. By the time she was 17, she was making silhouette sequences for films, and by 1919 she had made a film for the experimental animation studio Berliner Institut für Kulturforschung. It was there that she met her husband Carl Koch, who produced her films for the rest of his life.

Reiniger made many films in her twenties, including her most famous work— the feature-length The Adventures of Prince Achmed. During the film’s production, she created the first multi-plane camera. This invention essentially stacks different panes of animation to create the illusion of depth within the two-dimensional animation. She also was an early adapter of sound, creating short films called “Ten Minute Mozart” that were accompanied by Mozart’s music, such as this piece, “Papageno.”

In the 1930s, Reiniger and her husband fled Germany to escape the rise of the Nazis, saying she left “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.” Living primarily in London for the rest of her life, Reiniger remained a prolific filmmaker until her husband’s death in 1963. She focused on creating short films and fairytale adaptations, a perfect genre for her delicate work.

Reiniger and her work were largely forgotten, but a few years before her death she experienced a sort of renaissance as she was invited to give lectures, created new films, and was eventually given the Order of Merit from her native Germany the year before her death. If you’d like to know more about Lotte Reiniger, start by checking out this short animation by BBC, and then check out these articles by BFI and and the Women Film Pioneers Project, and this short doc showing Reiniger at work.

A Pair of Fairytales: Aschenputtel (1922) and Thumbelina (1955)

“Snip!” Lotte Reiniger’s Aschenputtel, a retelling of Cinderella through her silhouette technique, begins with depicting hands cutting out the figures that will eventually act out the story to come. This creates a level of meta narrative within the film, as it remains conscious of the fact that the story is “told by scissors.” Reiniger uses her medium to her advantage, playing with the frame and using vignettes to draw the viewer’s attention to the progressing narrative. The fanciful landscape implies a relationship to German Expressionist films of her contemporaries, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari— and even borrows some of the horror, as when the wicked stepmother snips in half at the end of the tale.

Thumbelina is perhaps not so formally clever, but rather illustrates the sophistication of Reiniger’s technique. The scissor work on these figures and landscape is particularly delicate, and you can observe the wonderful effects of the multi-plane camera as Thumbelina passes behind flowers, or rides a lily pad in the distances. Reiniger seems to patiently spend time relishing in the joy of her technique: framing the narrative are sequences of Thumbelina dancing on the lace-like flowers, showcasing the unique beauty of the silhouette.

Both films are exquisitely feminine, and Reiniger was able to have complete control over the product— an auteur of animation before such a term even existed. The elements of light and shadow are so basic, but Reiniger shows us just how beautiful that simplicity can be, while subtly suggesting—through both her fairytale subject manner as well as the many occurrences of transformation in her work— that anything is possible.