Updated: Mar 16, 2021
For much of the 20th century, Charlotte ‘Lotte’ Reiniger represented Germany’s answer to Disney, contributing to over 60 animated films during her lifetime. Influenced by a childhood spent cutting out paper silhouette puppets for her home-made shadow plays, Reiniger was keen to bring shadow puppetry to the silver screen.
Nurtured by Weimar Germany’s avant-garde cinema scene, Reiniger began working at the Berliner Institut für Kulturforschung, an experimental animation studio, and developed a singular technique for animating silhouettes.
The studio set up was simple: a table with a hole in the middle, covered by a glass plate, through which the scene was lit. Paper figures were then placed on translucent coloured paper over the glass. By cutting out individual body parts and connecting them with hinges at the joints, Reiniger was able to make expressive characters whose movements could be manipulated by hand between frames, which were then linked together to create a film.
Following a number of successful shorts, in 1926, eleven years before the release of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Reiniger released her first feature-length animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Reiniger developed the concept of multiplanes to give the illusion of depth in backgrounds, a technique that was copied and later developed by Disney.
Though much like Walt Disney, she used fairy tales as a source of inspiration, Reiniger’s fables were not sanitised – her adaptation of Cinderella depicts one stepsister cutting off part of her foot and the stepmother literally ripping herself in two. In the words of The Guardian’s Pamela Hutchinson, in contrast to Disney’s mass-market appeal, Reiniger ‘did not work like a film-maker, but as an artist.'
Though her shadow-filmography may not have reached the same level of popularity as Disney’s animated films in the post-war world, Reiniger should be admired for her commitment to her own signature style: beautifully crisp, intricate silhouettes painstakingly crafted by hand against deep colourful backgrounds telling fantastical stories.
Simple but never simplistic, audiences are forced to admire the artistry as much as, if not more so, than the story the puppets convey. A true cinema pioneer, it is high time that Lotti Reiniger’s work stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight.