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The Adventures of Lotte Reiniger – the early years of film animation in Germany

Today when we think of cartoons and animated films, our first thoughts are of Walt Disney and the Pixar studios in California. However, the first feature-length animated film of all time was produced by the German film producer Lotte Reiniger. Between 1923 and 1926, working by hand, she cut out around 100,000 individual silhouettes and created the film ‘The Adventures of Prince Achmed’, based on themes from the Arabian Nights.

Born in Berlin in 1899, Lotte Reiniger begins presenting shadow theatre productions to her friends when still a schoolgirl, using silhouette figures she has made herself to play scenes from William Shakespeare for instance. She also discovers her enthusiasm for film at an early age and is deeply impressed by the films of the successful actor and director Paul Wegener. Inspired by him, she takes acting lessons with Max Rheinhadt at the Deutsches Theater Berlin, but she also makes contact with a group of artists and scientists who, in their atelier called ‘Institut für Kulturforschung’, make cartoon animations.

From the Institut für Kulturforschung to the Arabian Nights

Here Lotte Reiniger not only finds her artistic vocation as a maker of silhouette-animated films, she also meets her future husband Carl Koch, with whom she will henceforth collaborate in producing her films. While she is mainly responsible for direction, preparing the silhouettes and animation, Carl Koch usually acts as production manager.

Her own first project is the short film, ‘Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens’ (The Ornament of the Enamoured Heart), in 1919. She achieves international recognition in 1926 with ‘The Adventures of Prince Achmed’. She spent three years working on this, cutting out and photographing 24 pictures for each second of film, resulting in a 66-minute product using around 100,000 cut-out silhouettes. As the Deutsches Filminstitut, which administers Reiniger’s film estate, would later say, ‘Artistic cinematic ambition and great manual dexterity are united in this film fairytale, whose filigree figures and imaginative décor enchant us.’ Reiniger died in 1981, close to Tübingen.

Take a look at ‘The Adventures of Prince Achmed'!

The achievements of a pioneer

Wherever we read or hear about Lotte Reiniger, she is described as a pioneer of film animation. Even today, wherever silhouettes can be seen moving in films around the world, many experts opine they are related to Reiniger’s animated figures. The artist invented her own animation bench, and she created many short and long silhouette films, most of them based on fairytales, myths or opera plots. In 1972, when she was already very advanced in years, she was awarded a Filmband in Gold, and in 1980 the German Federal Cross of Merit.

To mark her 100th birthday, in 1999 the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt collaborated with broadcasters ZDF and Arte to produce a new 35mm copy of ‘The Adventures of Prince Achmed’. Although a survey of the Association of German Cinemas rated the film as one of the 100 most important German films of all time, outside the expert circles, people today have largely forgotten about Lotte Reiniger. To make up for this, students and lecturers of media sciences at the University of Tübingen recently produced a film, ‘Tanz der Schatten’ (The Shadows’ Dance), examining the life and work of the filmmaker. This was screened earlier in 2012 at the International Festival of Animated Film in Stuttgart, an event that coincided with an exhibition in the Stadtmuseum Tübingen.

December 2012

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