Journalist Susan Stone on learning A LOT about Lotte Reiniger

I’d heard about Lotte Reiniger and seen stills and clips from her films, but I didn’t know the whole story of this fantastic animation pioneer.

So when I found out that this talented creator came from Berlin, the city I’ve lived in since 2005, I knew I had to suggest her for the Dead Ladies Show. The Dead Ladies Show tells the stories of amazing women from history live on stage, and I produce a monthly podcast from the events. Lotte’s famous film The Adventures of Prince Achmed debuted at the Volksbuhne, just a few blocks up the road from where I stood on stage telling her story. Afterwards, Rike Reiniger — a playwright and theatre director (who also works with puppets!), and a relative of Lotte’s through marriage — came up to tell me how much she’d enjoyed my talk. It was truly a rewarding moment.

I chose to tell Lotte’s story in the form of a fairy tale in five acts. I think she would have approved. But as I said in my presentation, fairy tales, especially those set in Germany, tend to be a little bit more Grimm than Disney.

Lotte’s painstakingly crafted silhouette films — some 80 in all — stemmed from her precocious talent, or what she called “an uncanny ability” for paper cutting. And while her basic tools were minimal, they led to the creation of the earliest surviving full-length animated feature film (Prince Achmed in 1926) and the animation desk and multi-plane camera that made the film’s intricate details and layered vivid depths possible, along with previously unseen special effects courtesy of wax and sand.  

Making magic out of not much was a skill that followed Lotte throughout her days, especially before and after the war as she and her husband Carl fled from Germany around Europe to the UK and back in a flight from the era’s horrors. One of the most touching things I saw in my research was a British newspaper article talking about how Lotte created puppets from discarded laundry soap boxes. She scavenged cardboard and paper where she could — anything to continue her art.

And while she was little known for decades, it seems there in fact are many, many fans and friends dedicated to bringing Lotte and her work out of the shadows.

Lotte’s influence can be seen in the work of notable contemporary animation leaders including Michel Ocelot and Rebecca Sugar, and even a scene from Harry Potter, The Deathly Hallows Part 1 has Lotte’s fingerprints on it. And, there’s this year’s Lotte that Silhouette Girl, a 10-minute short film by Elizabeth Beecherl (director and animator) and Carla Patullo (director and composer) narrated by Lotte herself via a 1976 interview; it uses shadow puppets and a multi-plane camera based on Lotte’s own designs, and was named best short film at the American Documentary Film Festival.

I first heard of Lotte Reiniger and Prince Achmed from Milestone Films, via Amy, who I met and interviewed at the Berlinale a decade ago, in the course of writing a story on The Exiles for NPR. Amy and Dennis’s passion for film, along with their DVD of Prince Achmed (which includes a documentary and other extras) got me started on my Lotte learning curve, a trajectory that was quickly accelerated by Whitney Grace’s incredibly in-depth 2017 book Lotte Reiniger: Pioneer of Film Animation. Find Grace’s book if you want to read more. But of course the very best place to begin is by watching Lotte’s films.