Lotte Reiniger was born in Berlin-Charlottenburg, German Empire, 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 with 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 animation.
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 Wegener's films, many of which featured silhouettes.
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 — most famously a silhouette falcon for a dream sequence in Part One of Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen). During this period she became the centre of a large group of ambitious German animators.
In 1923, a unique opportunity came her way. She became Art Teacher to the children of a banker, Louis Hagen, who had bought a large quantity of raw film stock as an investment to fight the spiralling inflation of the period. He commissioned Reiniger to make a feature film. The result was 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 Book of One Thousand and One Nights. Although it failed to a find a distributor for almost a year, once premièred at the Cannes Film Festival (thanks to the support of Jean Renoir) it then went on to become 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, Prinz Achmed boasted dream-like backgrounds by Walther Ruttmann (her partner in the Die Nibelungen sequence) and a symphonic score by Wolfgang Zeller. Additional effects were added by Carl Koch and Berthold Bartosch.
The success of Prinz 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 20-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 by different actors — the result being so unsuccessful as to ruin any enjoyment of the film. Reiniger also attempted to make a third animated feature, based on Maurice Ravel's opera L'Enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Bewitched Things, 1925), but found herself unable to clear the rights for the music with an unexpected number of copyright holders.
With the rise of the Nazi party, Reiniger and Koch decided to emigrate (both were involved in Leftist politics), 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. Somehow, they still managed to make 12 films during this period, the best-known being Carmen (1933) and Papageno (1935), both based on popular operas (Bizet's Carmen and Mozart's Die Zauberflöte). When World War II commenced, they were forced to stay in Berlin.
In 1949, Reiniger and Koch were finally able to move to London. She made a few short advertising films for the General Post Office. In 1955 Louis Hagen Jnr ( Primrose Productions) obtained a commission from Telecasting America for Lotte Reiniger to create a series of short animation films based on the 'Grimms' Fairy Tales. Koch died in 1962,.Reiniger also provided illustrations for the 1953 book King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green. She died in Dettenhausen, Germany, on June 19, 1981, at the age of 82.