Lotte Reiniger was born in Berlin-Charlottenburg, Germany, on June 2, 1899. As a child, she was fascinated with the Chinese art of silhouette puppetry, even building her own puppet theater so she could put on shows for her family and friends.
As a teenager, Reiniger fell in love with cinema, first the films of Georges Méliès for their special effects, then the films of actor and director Paul Wegener (known today for his two versions of Der Golem), which was more in the nature of a crush. In 1915, the young woman attended a lecture by Wegener that focused on the fantastic possibilities of the trick film.
After a bit of persuasion, she convinced her parents to enroll her in the acting group Wegener belonged to, the Theater of Max Reinhardt. In an attempt to attract the attention of her distant and very-busy hero, she started making silhouette portraits of the various actors around her. This had its desired effect, and soon she was making elaborate title cards for Wagener's films, many of which featured silhouettes.
In 1918, Reiniger animated wooden rats for Wegener's Der Rattenfänger von Hamelin (The Pied Piper of Hamelin). The success of this work got her admitted into the Institut für Kulturforschung (Institute for Cultural Discovery), an experimental animation studio. It was here that she met her future creative partner and husband (from 1921), Carl Koch.
The first film Reiniger directed was "Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens" (The Ornament of the Enamoured Heart) (1919), a short piece involving two lovers and an ornament that reflected their moods. The film was very well received. She went on to make six short films over the next few years, all produced and photographed by her husband. These were interspersed with advertising films (the Pinschewer advertising agency sponsored a large number of abstract animators during the Weimar period) and special effects for various feature films (in particular, she did a silhouette falcon for a dream sequence in Part One of Fritz Lang's Die Niebelungen). During this period she became the center of a large group of ambitious German animators.
Then in 1923 a unique opportunity came her way. A banker acquaintance, Louis Hagen, had bought a large quantity of raw film stock as an investment to fight the spiraling inflation of the period. The gamble had failed, and the film had become worthless to Hagen, so he decided to give it to Reiniger to make a feature film. The result of this gift was Die Geschichte des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed), completed in 1926, the oldest surviving animated feature film, with a plot that is a pastiche of stories from the Thousand and One Nights. The film was a critical and popular success. Reiniger anticipated Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks by a decade by devising the first multi-plane camera for certain effects. In addition to Reiniger's silhouette actors, Prinzen Achmed boasted dream-like backgrounds by Walther Ruttmann (her partner in the Die Niebelungen sequence) and a symphonic score by Wolfgang Zeller. Additional effects were added by Carl Koch and Berthold Bartosch.
The success of Prinzen Achmed meant that Lotte Reiniger would not need a stroke of luck to make a second feature. Doktor Dolittle und seine Tiere (Doctor Dolittle and His Animals) (1928) was based on the first of the English children's books by Hugh Lofting. The score this time was composed by Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith and Paul Dessau. A year later, Reiniger co-directed her first live-action film with Rochus Gliese, Die Jagd nach dem Glück (The Pursuit of Happiness) (1929), a tale about a shadow-puppet troupe. The film starred Jean Renoir and Bertold Bartosch and included a twenty-minute silhouette performance by Reiniger. Unfortunately, the film was completed just as sound came to Germany, and release of the film was delayed until 1930 to dub in voices for the actors--the dubbing was so bad it ruined the film. Reiniger was also trying to put together a third animated feature based on Maurice Ravel's opera L'Enfant et les Sortilèges (The Boy and the Bewitched Things) (1925), but she wasn't able to clear the rights with the unexpected number of copyright holders.
With the rise of the Nazi party, Reiniger and Koch decided to emigrate, but found that no other country would give them permanent visas. As a result, the couple spent the years 1933 - 1939 moving from country to country, staying as long as travel visas would allow. When they couldn't get a travel visa, they were forced to stay in Germany. They somehow made twelve films during this period, the best-known being Carmen (1933) and Papageno (1935), both based on popular operas (Bizet's Carmen and Mozart's The Magic Flute), and both showing both a strong feminist sensibility and an equally-strong musical interpretation. When World War II started, they were forced to stay in Berlin.
In 1949, Reiniger and Koch were finally able to move to London. After a few projects for the General Post Office, they opened Primrose Productions. Carl Koch died in 1962, but Lotte Reiniger continued on, making twenty animated silhouette films, most of them for the BBC and almost all based on classic fairy tales. She died in Dettenhausen, Germany, on June 19, 1981, at the age of 82.