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Seeking Our Story: The Art of Pioneering Animator Lotte Reiniger

Seeking Our Story: The Art of Pioneering Animator Lotte Reiniger

The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming book by author Heidi Honeycutt.

Charlotte “Lotte”
Reiniger (1899-1981)
was a German silhouette artist and animator in the first half of the 20th
century. Blessed from an early age with a strange affinity for cutting shadow-puppet silhouettes, Reiniger parlayed her imagination and talent into a
filmmaking career and established the sub-genre of silhouette animated film. In
a 1936 article titled “Scissors Make Films” for Sight & Sound magazine, Reiniger said, “I could cut silhouettes
almost as soon as I could manage to hold a pair of scissors.”

At 17, she was
hired by filmmaker Paul Wegener (director of the horror film Der Golem) to create and animate rat
puppets in his 1918 film Der Rattenfanger Von Hamelin (The Pied Piper
of Hamelin
). By the time she was 19, Reiniger was making short silhouette
films for the German Institut fur Kulturforschung, which also exhibited them.
It was at this time that she met and married her life and work partner Carl
Koch, an art historian who became extremely interested in helping Reiniger
further her career as an animator. It was Berlin banker Louis Hagen, however,
who funded her first feature-length animated film as a personal investment –
one for which he never saw a monetary return. 

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) was the first feature-length
animated film ever made – not Disney’s Snow
, as many believe. There is another contender for the title, the 1917
Argentinean film El Apóstol by early
animator Quirino Cristiani. However, all of the prints of El Apóstol were lost in a fire, so verification of the length of
the film has been debated (particularly by German film scholars vying for
Reiniger’s crowning as the first feature-length animator in film history). If it
wasn’t the first, The Adventures of
Prince Achmed
comes in a cool second.

In 1920s Weimar Germany, expressionism was the
artistic choice of the intellectual set, and in Paris, where Reiniger and Koch
spent plenty of time with artists, the avant-garde movement was in
full swing. Reiniger’s chosen medium allowed for a surrealist quality that
appealed to the modern-art crowd of continental Europe. Jean Renoir and Bertolt
Brecht were among two of Reiniger’s loudest supporters. Reiniger and Koch set
about creating a marvelous and fantastic animated silent film based on stories
from The Arabian Nights, the idea
being that they were not limited by the confines of live-action film production
and could create marvels such as flying horses, demons, and transforming
sorcerers without having to worry about expenses, actors, or a large crew. The Adventures of Prince Achmed took
three years from inception to completion with a small crew of four to aid with
background art, detail work, and special effects. Highly stylized, Reiniger’s
art embodied the bold compositions and theatrical settings of expressionist
live-action film, while also presenting the audience with an entirely new art

Reiniger eventually left Germany in the 1930s because of the
rise of the Nazi party.
when she fled, she left many of the original negatives of her films, so that
those that exist today are copies of copies of copies, and much of the original
detail has vanished. Reiniger went on to make two more features and dozens of
short films in the United Kingdom and in France, many of which are available
digitally today, and all of which deal with the fantastic and fairy tales.

Reiniger is hailed by animation academics and fans as one of the greatest
figures in cinematic animation of all time. She made her last film in 1980 and
died shortly thereafter at the age of 82. She had never made a live-action
film or an animated film that did not include silhouettes.

This month, Seeking
Our Story
 screens Lotte Reiniger’s 
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) on Friday, December 19th at 8 PM as
part of Friday Night Film Club at MiMoDa Studio in Los Angeles.

Prior to the screening
at 7 PM, join @WomenNMedia in connecting film
enthusiasts and above- and below-the-line crew members to build future
collaborative relationships.

Networking at 7 PM.
Film at 8 PM. This is a community screening with donations accepted.

Heidi Honeycutt is a film journalist and author. She has contributed articles and opinions about women directors to Celluloid Ceiling: Women Directors Breaking Through, Indiewire, Fangoria Magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland, and MovieMaker Magazine, among other publications. She is the Director of Programming of the genre-film showcase Etheria Film Night for emerging women directors.

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