She was a contemporary of Jean Renoir and Bertold Brecht but Lotte Reiniger will be best remembered for creating the first ever full-length animated movie in cinema history. A feat she achieved ten years before Walt Disney.
Born in Germany in the 19th century, she worked through World War II, creating animation that hugely critical of the Nazi regime while she and her husband, Carl Koch, went from country-to-country to escape fascism.
On June 2, Google has chosen to celebrate Reiniger on what would have been her 117th birthday with one of the company’s famed doodles. She passed away in 1982 in her native Germany at the age of 82.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. She Was a Hugely Prolific Filmmaker; Directing 55 Movies Between 1919 & 1980
Reiniger’s profile at the Animators World Network details some of the 55 movies she made during the course of her career. Growing up close to Berlin in the early 20th century, Reiniger was greatly influenced by the groundbreaking special effects of early filmmaker Georges Melies. She also admired The Golem director Paul Wegener.
Her first job in the industry was making the title cards for some of Wegener’s movies. The met the director when she joined the Theater of Max Reinhardt, a theater troupe where Wegener sourced his actors in Germany, according to A Tale of Lotte Reiniger.
On her IMDb page, it says that Reiniger made her first movie in 1919, The Ornament of the Lovestruck Heart. Reiniger’s last movie was The Rose and the Ring.
2. Reiniger’s Husband Fought Jean Renoir in a World War 1 Dogfight; Despite This, the 2 Would Become Frequent Collaborators
Most of her early work was produced by her husband whom she met in 1921, Carl Koch. One of the movies, One Thousand One Nights, which was made in 1926, was championed by famed artist Jean Renoir, who helped it get a premiere in Paris, according to a feature on Cinematic Frontier. The artists would then go on to star in her 1929 movie, The Pursuit of Happines.
In the book, Grand Illusion: The Third Reich, the Paris Exposition, and the Cultural Seduction of France, it’s detailed that while working together on the movie The Great Illusion, Carl Koch and Jean Renoir realized they’d fought against each other in World War 1. Renoir says in the book:
So we have made war together. These things form a bond. The fact that we had been on opposite sides was the merest detail. Indeed, as a I come to think of it, it was even better – a further instance of my theory of the division of the world by horizontal frontiers and not into compartments enclosed in vertical frontiers.
The artist notes that his pacifist nature after the Great War was shared by Koch.
3. No Country Would Take in Reiniger & Her Husband During World War II
As Hitler and Nazi Party rose in Germany in the 1930s, Reiniger and Koch attempted to leave their homeland. Koch had been active in the Socialist party and both had many Jewish friends, according to a post in the Animation Journal. She said at the time, “I didn’t like this whole Hitler thing and because I had many Jewish friends whom I was no longer allowed to call friends.”
Between the years of 1933-44, the couple bounced around between France, England and Italy, according to the book The Enchanted Screen. While they were on the run, they were able to produce 12 movies, including a retelling of Bizet’s epic Carmen.
The couple was able to work in Rome thanks to the help of Luchinho Visconti. In 1944, they were deported back to Germany, though just prior to the end of the war they were able to get permanent Visas in England, according to her profile at the British Film Insitute website.
Reiniger was able to take up work for the BBC during this time, working on Grimms’ Fairy Tales. During this time, she also created the logo for the National Children’s Deaf Society. The couple also founded Primrose Productions at this time.
Carl Koch passed away in 1963 in Chipping Barnet, England.
4. During a 1970s Lecture Tour of the U.S., Reiniger Described Herself as a ‘Primitive Caveman Artist’
After her husband’s death, Reiniger’s creative output slowed considerably. A feature on her at Puppetry Films talked about Reiniger’s lecture tour across North America in the 1970s.
During one lecture, she told an audience that she felt she was a “primitive caveman artist.” The feature says that “inspired by the warmth and affection she encountered, she resumed work.” She would make two films just prior to her death, The Rose and the Ring amd The Four Seasons.
In 1979, upon a rediscovery of her work, she was awarded the German Order of Merit.
5. One British Academic Says of Reiniger, ‘No One Else has Taken a Specific Animation Technique & Made it So Utterly Her Own’
The British Film Institute’s Philip Kemp said of Reiniger, “No one else has taken a specific animation technique and made it so utterly her own. To date she has no rivals, and for all practical purposes the history of silhouette animation begins and ends with Reiniger.”