Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Excellent Women: Lotte Reiniger

Walt Disney is probably one of the most well known names in the world, famed for his pioneering film making and for bringing animation to the big screen. So it may surprise you to know that more than a decade before Disney decided to make full length animated features, a woman was already doing just that.

Lotte Reiniger began her career in Germany in the 1920s, having grown up loving puppetry and the special effects of films by the likes of Georges Méliès. She specialised in silhouette animation based on shadow puppet traditions from the Far East, cutting out her characters and scenery from black paper.

She is credited with creating - largely on her own - the first entirely animated feature that still exists (a few films from the 1910s have been lost), eleven years before Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Reiniger's full length creation was also a fairytale, but one taken from the Arabian Nights: The Adventures of Prince Ahmed.

Reiniger's 1922 short film of Cinderella opens with an animated depiction of her own hands cutting the lead character out of black paper - this acknowledgement of the 'unreal' nature of her films is one of the things that marked her out from people like Disney and indeed, most film makers still today. Her work was abstract, stylised and otherworldly which contrasts strongly with the kind of realism Disney was going for.


Lotte and her creative partner and husband Carl Koch left Germany during the rise of the Nazi party and didn't return until 1944. In her career she made over 40 films - you can see her still working away with incredible speed and dexterity at the age of 72 in this documentary:

I first discovered Reiniger's work when I went to the Birds Eye View Festival Sound and Silents event, back in 2011. (I'm thrilled that the festival is back on this year, from 8 to 13 April. It champions women working in film, both on screen and behind the camera.)

At the event, musician Micachu, another excellent woman, created a new score for Reiniger's Hansel and Gretel and performed it live. The stuttering, staccato sounds she used had been made entirely from cassette tapes, and it suited the films' jumpy characters perfectly. You should definitely check out Michachu's work - she's just created the soundtrack to Scarlet Johansson's new film Under the Skin.

It's crazy to think that we still live in an age where women struggle for recognition in the film industry. Organisations like Birds Eye View really do a wonderful job highlighting women from the past who may have been forgotten, as well as the rising stars of today.

If you want to see more of her work the BFI sell a great DVD, and if you check out Silent London, run by the wonderful silent film afficionado Pamela Hutchinson, you can see any forthcoming screenings of her films, which are often accompanied by live soundtracks. Pamela also lists silent film festivals and events outside of London.


  1. Whoa - you can really see her influence on Jan Pienkowski's illustrations for the Joan Aiken books. Incredible. Thanks Katie.

    1. Indeed- and people like Rob Ryan too! Thanks Kat.

  2. Lotte Reiniger's work is glorious: lovely to see it represented on DS. For anyone interested in women working in film and television, you might like to have a look at the Women's Film and Television History Network blog: The most recent post is about cinema usherettes in the 30s and 40s: glamour! spiffy uniforms! pilfered port!

    (I am not associated with the blog in question: I just think it's a really interesting read.)

    1. That sounds like a great site - I'll definitely look at that, thank you!

    2. You're very welcome! Also, if Domestic Sluttery is taking nominations for Excellent Women posts, might I suggest Eleanor Rathbone?
      She was awesome, in the purest sense of the word.

  3. Thanks for the link – and what a fab idea for a series. Lotte Reiniger's films really are beautiful. Here's one she made for the GPO film unit when she was in Britain

  4. Oh yes – the WFTVH blog is fab – definitely worth a few hours' reading

  5. Her work looks so familiar, and yet I'd never heard of her so I really enjoyed this. I read this piece while sat next to a chap who makes (really very good) films for a living, he'd never heard of her either. She sounds excellent.

  6. Thanks. I really enjoyed this piece and especially the documentary - If you don't have a light table "you take your best dining table and cut a hole into it". I'm off to buy a jig saw.
    Her work made me instantly think of the films of Michel Ocelot whose animated films are well worth searching for if you think you (or your children) might enjoy this style.


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