1926, saw the release of Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed). Directed by Lotte Reiniger, the film was a feature-length animation that appeared ten years earlier than Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and was the film, that it could be argued, invented the form of full length animation.
Charlotte “Lotte” Reiniger, was born on 2 June 1899 in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin. As a child, Lotte was fascinated by the Chinese art of silhouette puppetry. She loved the imagery but was also deeply interested in the making of the silhouettes. From there she progressed to the film of Georges Méliès and Paul Wegener. Again both the final film and the creative process were of interest.
In 1915, she attended a lecture by Wegener on the possibilities of animation and by soon after started work for him designing silhouettes. In 1918, Wegener was making his film Der Rattenfänger von Hameln (The Pied Piper of Hamelin), and Lotte animated wooden rat puppets using stop motion. This was so successful that she was was admitted into the Institut für Kulturforschung (Institute for Cultural Research), an experimental animation and shortfilm studio.
In 1919, Lotte directed her first film Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens (The Ornament of the Enamoured Heart, 1919). Although only a short, five minute film, it was well received and generated a lot on interest in her work.
In 1921, Lotte married Carl Koch, whom she had met at the Institut für Kulturforschung.
Over the next few years, Lotte and Carl collaborated on several films. She directed he acted as photographer and producer. She also worked on special effects on a number of feature films most notably Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (The Nibelungs) where she created a silhouette falcon for the cream sequence. It was during this time that Lotte started her work on a device, a manual shutter that shot backlit images through several planes of glass to achieve a layered effect giving depth to the shot. This device was a forerunner of the first multiplane camera.
In 1923, she was approached by Louis Hagen, and asked about making a feature-length animated film. This was a novel idea at the time as most animated films were shorts of around ten minutes. In 1926, Lotte completed Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed with a plot derived from a variety of stories from One Thousand and One Nights. The film premiered in Paris and became an instant critical and popular success.
Following the success of Prince Achmed, Lotte was able to make a second feature, Doktor Dolittle und seine Tiere (Doctor Dolittle and his Animals) based on the first of the English children’s books by Hugh Lofting.
With the rise of the Nazi Party, Lotte and Carl decided to emigrate; both were involved in left-wing politics. They left Germany but could not find a country that would give them permanent visas. Between 1933–1944 they were forced to move from moving from country to country. They worked where-ever possible and even explored new areas such as music and animation. The majority of the films they made during this time contained covert, and in some cases, blatant, anti-Nazi motifs.
In 1944, still unable to gain a permanent visa anywhere, the couple moved back to Berlin to care for Lotte’s mother who was seriously ill. Lotte came under extreme pressure from the Nazis and was forced to make propaganda films for the regime. While these films, such as Die goldene Gans (The Golden Goose, 1944), are technically excellent, the stories are wooden and lifeless. When this became apparent to the Nazi authorities, Lotte was put under increasing pressure which was only relieved by the fact that the regime was coming under pressure itself from the increasing advances of the Allies.
In 1949, Lotte and Carl moved to London and worked for John Grierson and his General Post Office Film Unit. By 1953, Lotte had founded Primrose Production with Louis Hagen Jr. the son of the financier of Prince Achmed. With this company, Lotte made over a dozen short silhouette films based on Grimms’ Fairy Tales for the BBC and Telecasting America. Lotte continued to work on and off over the years, her last film being The Rose and the Ring, released in 1979.
Lotte was honoured in her home country with the Filmband in Gold of the Deutscher Filmpreis in 1972 and the ; in 1979 she received the Great Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1979. She died in Dettenhausen, Germany, on 19 June 1981, just after her 82nd birthday.
Lotte Reiniger was a true innovator in her field. Her style of animation was quite different from anything else that was being produced in the 1920s and 1930s, she developed the techniques of shooting through several planes of backlit glass panels, created a feature-length animation ten years before Disney and used stop-motion animation in the way that entertained millions. But perhaps her greatest legacy is the creation of films that although over ninety years old continues to enchant to this day.