Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.
A decade before Walt Disney Productions came into existence, making its name synonymous with animated films, there was another pioneer of the art form — Lotte Reiniger.
Reiniger’s filmmaking career spanned 60 years, during which she created more than 70 silhouette animation films, including versions of “Puss in Boots” (1954), “Hansel and Gretel” (1955) and “Cinderella” (1963). She’s perhaps best known for her 1926 silent film “The Adventures of Prince Achmed,” a fantastical adaptation of “The Arabian Nights” that was among the first full-length animated features ever made.
Charlotte Reiniger was born on June 2, 1899, in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin to Karl and Eleanor (Raquette) Reiniger. She studied at the Charlottenburger Waldschule, where she learned about scherenschnitte, the art of cutting shapes and designs in paper with scissors. The art form originated in China and later became popular in Germany.
Reiniger cut silhouettes of people, including her family members.
“I began to use my silhouettes for my playacting, constructing a little shadow theater in which to stage Shakespeare,” she wrote in 1936 in Sight and Sound magazine.
At first she wanted to be an actress, but that ambition changed when, as a teenager, she encountered the film director and actor Paul Wegener after a lecture he had delivered in Berlin on the possibilities of animation in cinema. Fascinated by his films, like “The Student of Prague” (1913) and “The Golem” (1915), she persuaded her parents to enroll her in a theater group at the Max Reinhardt School of Acting, where Wegener taught.
For fun she cut silhouettes of the actors in the group. Wegener was impressed.
He soon enlisted her to help with his 1918 film, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” an adaptation of the folk legend about a man who is hired to play his magic flute to lure away rats from a German town. When the town refuses to pay him for his services, the piper plays another tune to hypnotize the children and lead them out of the town, never to be seen again. Wegener had Reiniger help him animate wooden puppet rats for the film.
“I now had one desire — to make films,” she wrote.
Her work with Wegener led to her admission to the Institute of Cultural Research in Berlin, where she met the art historian Carl Koch. He would become her husband and a collaborator on her films.
Their first animated short was “The Ornament of the Heart in Love” (1919), about two lovers, both ballet dancers, and a morphing ornament between them that represents their emotions.
The expressive qualities of her work caught the attention of a patron, the banker Louis Hagen, who owned a film company and was looking to invest in new talent. Hagen invited her and her team of producers and designers to use his studio in Potsdam, Germany, where they worked on “Prince Achmed,” their first feature-length film.
Music, perhaps counterintuitively, was vital to the silent film, and the team worked early on with the composer Wolfgang Zeller, who made sound effects with flute notes and a glockenspiel. The team then filmed their scenes to the music, the notes driving the action and punctuating it with emotion.
Reiniger’s editing was meticulous. Starting with more than 250,000 frames, she and her crew used just over 100,000 in the film, which ran for an hour and 21 minutes, each second requiring 24 frames. It took three years to complete, and premiered in the Volksbühne, or People’s Theater, in Berlin, when Reiniger was 27..
The film showcased the fantastical potential of animation. A prince defeated an army of demons to win over a princess. Birds battled witches and sorcerers. Horses flew.
The French film director Jean Renoir saw “Prince Achmed” on its opening night in Paris, and later recalled that he wanted to tell her, “You have fairy hands.”
Reiniger designed a complex process to make her films. She cut each limb of each figure out of black cardboard and thin lead, then joined them together with wire hinges. For research, she spent hours at the Zoo Berlin, watching how the animals moved.
Beginning with “Prince Achmed,” she also created an early version of the multiplane camera, which gave two-dimensional animation a hitherto unexplored depth, movement and complexity. She called her device a tricktisch, or trick table.
Reiniger described her process this way: “Figures and backgrounds are laid out on a glass table. A strong light from underneath makes the wire hinges disappear and throws up the black figures in relief. The camera hangs above this table, looking down at the picture arranged below.”
After taking a photograph, Reiniger and her team moved the figures into their next position and photographed the scene again. “The important thing,” she wrote, “is to know how much to move the figures so that a lifelike effect may be obtained.”
Jack and the Beanstalk, 1955, Primrose Productions / BFI National Archive
In reviewing her “Cinderella” for The New York Times in 1928, Charles Morgan wrote, “The small black shapes laugh at you from a world of their own into which naturalism makes no laborious entry!”
When Hitler was in power, Reiniger and her husband left Germany for France, Italy and England, where they collaborated with other puppeteers, funders and artists before returning to Berlin in 1944 to look after Reiniger’s mother. In 1948 they moved to London, where they joined a nearby artists’ colony. Reiniger then directed a series of short children’s films for the BBC.
Her husband died in 1963, and she stopped making films. But in 1972 she was recognized with the Golden Reel Award at the Berlin Film Festival for her contributions to German cinema. Two years later, the Goethe Institute sponsored her on a lecture tour of Canada and the United States.
“A Reiniger revival swept North America,” the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail wrote.
The tour inspired her to make a few final short films, including “The Rose and the Ring” (1979), a 24-minute adaptation of the 1854 satirical work of fiction by William Makepeace Thackeray, and “Düsselchen and the Four Seasons,” a two-minute film completed in 1980. She died on June 19, 1981, in Dettenhausen, Germany. She was 82.
Though The New York Times did not take note of her death at the time, the Times film critic A.O. Scott recalled her in a 2018 article about the unsung women who had advanced the art of filmmaking.
Praising Reiniger’s “blend of whimsy and spookiness,” Mr. Scott wrote that her “dreamy images that seem to tap right into the collective unconscious suggest both an antidote to Disney and a precursor to Tim Burton.”