otte Reiniger’s career as an independent filmmaker is among the longest and most singular in film history, spanning some 60 years (1919–79) of actively creating silhouette animation films. Her The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the world’s first feature-length animation film, made when she was in her mid-twenties and winning considerable acclaim. Silhouette animation existed before 1919, but Reiniger was its preeminent practitioner, transforming a technically and aesthetically bland genre to a recognized art form. Since childhood she had excelled at freehand cut-outs and shadow theatres. As a teenager at Max Reinhardt’s acting studio, she was invited by actor-director Paul Wegener to make silhouette decorations for the credits and intertitles of The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1918); she also helped animate the film’s wooden rats, when live guinea pigs proved unmanageable. The rest of Reiniger’s professional life was wholeheartedly devoted to silhouette animation, with an occasional retreat to shadow plays or book illustrations when money was not available for films.
Prominent among Reiniger’s talents was her transcendence of the inherent flatness and awkwardness of silhouette animation through her dramatic mise en scène and her balletic movements. Her female characters are especially lively and original, displaying wit, sensuousness, and self-awareness rarely found in animated cartoons (from whose creative ranks women animators were virtually excluded until the 1970s). Few real-life actresses could match the expressiveness with which Reiniger inspirited the gestures of her lead-jointed figures as she moved and filmed them fraction by fraction, frame by frame. For over four decades, Reiniger shared her professional life with her husband, Carl Koch, who designed her animation studio and, until his death in 1963, served as her producer and camera operator. “There was nothing about what is called film-technique that he did not know,” Jean Renoir wrote in his autobiography. (In the late 1930s, Koch collaborated on the scripts and production of Renoir’s celebrated Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game, and on La Marseillaise for which Reiniger created a shadow-play sequence.)
Aside from The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Reiniger ventured into feature filmmaking only once, in Running after Luck, the story of a wandering showman, part animation and part live-action, which she codirected with Rochus Gliese. It was a critical and financial failure, perhaps because of its imperfect sound system. The rest of her films were shorts, mainly one or two reels in length. Reiniger worked outside commercial channels, with minimal support. She said she never felt discrimination because she was a woman, but she did admit resenting that great sums were spent on films of little or no imagination while so little was available for the films she wanted to make. In the 1970s she was coaxed from her retirement to make two films in Canada; she also toured much of Europe, Canada, and the United States under the auspices of the Goethe House cultural centres of the West German government, showing her films and demonstrating her cut-out animation technique. Hans Richter, who knew Reiniger in the early Berlin years, later wrote that she “belonged to the avant-garde as far as independent production and courage were concerned,” but that the spirit of her work seemed Victorian. Renoir placed her even further back in time, as “a visual expression of Mozart’s music.” It is more likely that, like the fables and myths and fairy tales on which many of her films are based, her work transcends time and fashion.
By Cecile Starr