I am always on the lookout for the forgotten women of early film and animation. Charlotte (Lotte) Reiniger (1899-1981) is one such woman, who, with a small team, made the oldest surviving feature-length animated film eleven years before Disney’s Snow White premiered.
Reiniger, inspired by Indonesian and Chinese shadow puppets, made stop-motion films using spectacularly-detailed hand-cut silhouettes. She cut most of the figures herself with lightning speed, a talent she’d developed as a child when she put on shadow-puppet plays for fun. The figures were made of multiple pieces of of black cardboard, connected at the joints by wire so Reiniger could move and re-use them.
Her physical setup for filming was similar to cell animation: at the bottom was a light, then a glass pane for backgrounds, and above it a glass pane to support the silhouettes. Over all of this sat the camera, which captured both layers. The backgrounds were made either from layers of transparent paper, or paint; and some scenes in her films feature animation using paint.
Reiniger’s first film job, at the age of nineteen, was making titles and assisting with a stop-motion animated scene for Paul Wegener’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1918). He had met her at Max Reinhardt’s drama school, where she had continued her childhood shadow-puppet shows. Wegener also introduced her to other people involved in film, with whom she collaborated when she was sponsored by the Institute for Culture Research.
During her twenties, she made Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens’ (The Ornament of the Enamoured Heart)(1919), five short films, advertising shorts, a number of shorts for children, and worked with Walter Ruttmann to make a dream sequence for Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (The Nibelungs)(1924).
It was at the Institute for Culture Research that banker Louis Hagen noticed her working on a project. During the interwar years, German money was worth practically nothing, and wealthy people looked for ways to spend cash productively. He approached her about making a feature-length film, and she decided to take inspiration from 1001 Arabian Nights when she chose to make The Adventures of Prince Achmed, which came out in 1926.
You can watch the entire film with its original score and German title cards at the Daily Motion. It’s very impressive. The detail of the silhouettes is amazing and the backgrounds are gorgeous, especially the natural and architectural ones. The motion is pretty realistic, and although it might not be everyone’s preference, I really liked the elegant, dramatic gestures the characters made.
The nature of the silhouettes themselves – that is, shadows with back-lighting – give close-up scenes a more intimate feeling they may not have had otherwise. There is lots of smooching in this film, by the way. And also belly dancing, around 13 minutes in. (Or at least, the German idea of belly dancing, haha.)
Watching it in German isn’t too big of a deal – you can figure out most of what’s going on because it’s a silent film and so relies on the visuals to tell the story.
I feel like I’ve only covered a small part of Reiniger’s body of work and I’m going to scour the internet for more of her films to watch, including:
I’ve found Reiniger’s inventiveness and aesthetic very inspiring. If you find more of her films on the internet, let me know in the comments!
Links for Lotte Reiniger:
- 1971 documentary (under 20 minutes)
- Watch The Adventures of Prince Achmed
- The Adventures of Prince Achmed on Silent Film.org
- Women’s History Month: On the master animator Lotte Reiniger
- Dark of the Matin
- The History of Cut-Out Animation
- The Adventures of Prince Achmed