Lotte Reiniger and the silhouette animation

achmed2teaser-big_905There’s a lot of different techniques that will alone make a great visual experience. One of them goes back almost one hundred years, silhouette animation, pioneered most importantly by a young German girl.

Lotte Reiniger made silhouette animation, because she was good at it. Cutting silhouettes from paper was a common interest of young females in the dawn of last century. Lotte’s skills with scissors was considered above others and with all that enthusiasm this wannabe actress had, it was only a matter of time when she was picked up.

She cut silhouettes of other actors and actresses when she wasn’t on stage herself, and by the stage side she was found by film director Paul Wegener, who asked her to craft title screens for his new film. At that time, title screens were still a noticeable area of work. Alfred Hitchcock for example began his career creating a dozen of titles from 1920 to 1922, before making any films. Though, all of them are lost.

At the time of Wegener’s next film, Der Rattenfänger von Hameln, faith entered the picture. The intended rats did not act like they were hoped, and Lotte cut the rats from paper and animated them on screen. Her first animation work can be thus found on that picture.

Reininger became familiar with other German experimental film makers, and was soon an insider. Pioneers of abstract film helped Lotte start up her professional career by convincing the financiers and helping with the special effects. Carl Koch ended up being not only a collaborator for life, but also marrying Lotte.

After the first short film was made, Lotte had some reference to show and she was hired to do a commercial for Nivea. Faithful to her style, but in reverse method the film had one colored figures on black background, not vice versa like usually.

The commercial helped her finance more short films and after a few fairy tale films she started a project now known as the first existing feature length animated film ever made. It is true, there may have been an Argentinian film made already in 1917, but there’s a little evidence on that. The film is anyway lost and no images are found.


Lotte Reiniger: Prince Achmed (1926)

Lotte Reiniger: Prince Achmed (1926)

Lotte Reiniger: Prince Achmed (1926)

Lotte Reiniger: Prince Achmed (1926)


Prince Achmed of course is Lotte’s most famous piece, because it’s a feature length. A longer film is always a process of it’s own, but in this case, greatest technical abilities, musical visualization, fairy tale and humor can be found from her short films.

Especially a sort of sub-plot from Prince Achmed, Seemingly Dead Chinese, shows Lotte’s ability to do black comedy. A drunken Chinese man is thrown from man to man, as they all think he’s dead.

The boldest and most intense film is Carmen, classical opera about a gypsy woman dancing and singing in the crowds, amazingly conducted. In some sense, it’s the very finest piece Lotte ever made. It is fast paced and the animation and rhythm meets in perfect harmony all the time.

Lotte had a long break from animation during the WWII, and moved to England. It was a land of all new oppurtunities for her. BBC ordered a series of classic fairy tales, and in mid-fifties she did dozens of silhouette animations based on Brothers Grimm, H.C. Andersen and other standards.

Many of the most charming fairy tale adaptations can be found there. Among the most beautiful ones are definitely Thumbelina and Snow-White and Rose-Red. Her ability to tell a story and make it beautifully graphic was at it’s best during her most active era.


Lotte Reiniger: Thumbelina (1954)

Lotte Reiniger: Thumbelina (1954)

Lotte Reiniger: Snow-White and Rose-Red (1954)

Lotte Reiniger: Snow-White and Rose-Red (1954)


In those films, all compositions of nature, human and animals is flawless, each frame is like it was taken from a picture book, animation is smooth, and all is represented in glorious black and white, just like Lotte always though was best for this style.

Lotte also tried vaguely different approach after that. A cut-out animation. Technique of animating wasn’t necessarily all that different, but the looks was. Instead of being just black figures, the characters had actually faces and colorful clothes et cetera.

The fact, that Lotte experimented with cut-out animation is very unknown, but not because those films would’ve been weaker. The cut-out films are actually among the best of her latter works.

Basically, Lotte’s active career ended in the late fifties, but she did come back for two, quarter of an hour long, ambitious and showy pieces for Natioanl Film Board of Canada.

Canada has the most Europe-friendly approach for animated films outside the continent, and therefor it’s no wonder it was NFB that gave Lotte the oppurtunity to show yet one more side of her.

These films parody and satirize romantic epics and fantasy literature. First beinig Aucassin and Nicolette (1975), based on medieval parody of the same name. It was adapted to shadow puppetry for the first time in 1909 by French Paul Le Flem. Last film adaptation Lotte did was based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring from 1854.

Lotte is often said to be the only film maker using silhouettes as the most common technique of professional film making, but the style was popular in Germany for long, even after Lotte left her birth country. All the way from the late fifties to the dismantling of the Wall.


Manfred Henke: Ali und Der Hexenmeister (1986)

Manfred Henke: Ali und Der Hexenmeister (1986)

Michel Ocelot: Icare (1989)

Michel Ocelot: Icare (1989)


The film studio owned by DDR, called DEFA, actually produced loads of silhouette films for many decades. The most important film makers of this style were Bruno J. Böttge and Manfred Henke. All followers, including them, were true to Lotte Reiniger’s style. Especially the films from the fifties was seeking to be almost exactly the same.

Bruno J. Böttge’s films are equally good from every decade. He never strayed from the path too much, he settled for making Reiniger-pastiches. Some of DEFA directors went too far with the experimenting with the effects and overall image of the films and ruined the whole concept.

Silhouette film became mainly an aesthetic style, not technical. The black shadow figures were soon filled with colorful clothes and pieces of jewellery.

Manfred Henke made a lot of uninteresting basic works, but he also made something great. Ali und Der Hexenmeister from 1986 is one of the greatest hidden silhouette gems. It is practically unknown, yet very nicely crafted, adventurous tale with powerful music and sound effects, a lot of tension, good tempo and great images filled at times with surrealism and psychedelia. It has also a lot of tracking shots, that are not usually seen at all in silhouette films.

Still, the greatest contemporary silhouette animation film maker is French. Michel Ocelot had the idea on a workshop, and flatly copied Reiniger’s style too, but he could bring the whole aesthetic style to this date, with rich details and ornament-like nature design. From the eighties, all the way to this day, silhouette animation stands as his biggest trademark alongside with Kirikou the character.


Playdead: Limbo (2010)

Playdead: Limbo (2010)

Buzea: Eroul fara nume (2014)

Buzea: Eroul fara nume (2014)


As a style, silhouettes are again a small trend, but the contemporary silhouette animation is being made entirely without scissors. In the world of video gaming and mainstream film titles, the CGI silhouettes have become darker and darker, even more gothic in general. Part of it’s of course amazingly good, but it’s always a pity when a handmade art form disappears.

Silhouette animation cut with scissors is pretty much dead.


One thought on “Lotte Reiniger and the silhouette animation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s