Die Abenteuer Des Prinzen Achmed (1926)
aka The Adventures of Prince Achmed
Directed by Lotte Reiniger
65 min; Germany; Black and White (tinted and toned); Silent
Think about an image on a movie screen. It’s flat, two-dimensional, with both height (y axis) and width (x axis) but no depth (z axis). After perfecting the illusion of motion, by passing a series of individual photographs before a lamp at speed and projecting the resulting images through a lens onto a screen, the cinema’s next most important task is to produce the illusion of depth; it must convince us that we’re watching an image that is three-dimensional while in fact it is forever trapped in only two. This illusion of depth is the joint concern of proper lighting, cinematography, staging and set design. Without depth images have a tendency to look manufactured and unreal. That's one of the reasons why many of the early silent films look poor to the modern viewer. The performers in the early silents typically work before a flat surface with the camera positioned exactly perpendicular while daylight fills the room with flat lighting; the result is, well, rather two dimensonal. But, by the late silent period set designers constructed larger, deeper and more realistic sets, actors played within a richer mis-en-scene, cinematographers took advantage of camera angles and three-point lighting came into play— filmmakers had all but perfected the illusion of depth.
Why am I writing about all of this? To illustrate how Lotte Reiniger's approach to filmmaking is so radically different in The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). The first full-length animated feature is more or less a shadow play, and shadows, of course, have no depth at all yet somehow Reiniger’s ability to transform these abstract images keeps us entranced and entertained for over an hour.
Apparently not all of the adventures of Prince Achmed are necessarily dangerous.
Shadow plays may be the earliest ancestor of cinema. Both depend on light projection, involve motion and can be used to tell linear stories. Imagine a simple ancient shadow play made with hands casting shadow images from flickering firelight onto a tent wall (or try it yourself with one hard light and a sheet of paper) and I'd argue that there's a spark of cinema there. According to Jubin Hu's article Yingxi: The Initial Chinese Conception About Film, the shadow play developed as an art form in China over 500 years ago, and a connection between it and cinema was drawn years later when film was introduced into China by the globe-trotting Lumiére company on August 11, 1896. Cinema was dubbed "dianguang yingxi (electric light shadow play)...the modifier 'electric light' to differentiate the new form from the traditional shadow play."1 Shadow plays also have a long history in Europe and in 1907, the New York Times reported that the "shadowgraph" was being revived again in Germany to "drive away ennui" from staid European drawing rooms. 2 Shadow plays were creatively put in service of German expressionism by Arthur Robinson in the excellent Schatten: Eine nächtliche Halluzination (1923). In that film a shadow play artist uses his skills at manipulating light to convince a man (and the audience) that his wife is cheating on him.
The creative Lotte Reiniger, born in Berlin in 1899, caught the shadow play bug, learned to create silhouettes and built a shadow theater when she was only 14. Four years later, after studying at the Max Reinhardt Theater, she worked with Paul Wegener on The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1918) creating silouettes for the film’s opening sequence. It was during this production that Reineger first encountered animation when she observed Wegener’s stop-motion techniques to animate wooden rats. By the early 1920s Reiniger was eager to create animated films reminiscent of shadow plays by using silhouttes.
The Arabian Nights serves as the inspiration for The Adventures of Prince Achmed, especially Alaeddin; Or, The Wonderful Lamp and The Story of Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Perie Banou (this also served to inform The Thief of Bagdad (1924) which enjoyed great success in Germany). According to Katja Raganelli's Lotte Reiniger: Homage to the Inventor of the Silhouette Film (1999), Reiniger’s collaborators weren’t surprised by her choice of subject because she was a fan of fairy tales, convinced that they contain a certain sort of truth that's seldom found elsewhere. Judging from Joe May’s exotic The Indian Tomb (1921) and the “Harun al Raschid” segment of Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), tales and legends of Asia were common fascinations among filmmakers working in Germany in the 1920s.
The fairy princess Banu and her bathers in The Adventures of Prince Achmed.
In Reiniger's animated tale we meet noble Prince Achmed who is tricked into riding a magical flying horse to his doom by an evil sorceror who has designs on Achmed’s sister. However, Achmed learns to control the winged creature and he flies from from one adventure after another, falling in love with the mysterious Pari Banu and forging an alliance with Aladdin to battle the sorcerer’s army of shadow demons, as he struggles to get back home. Unlike the abstract animations of other artists in Germany, such as Walter Ruttman or Hans Richter, Reiniger embraced a more commercial, narrative style. While that opens the door to wider audience appeal it also means that ubiquitous intertitles interrupt the flow of delightful animations. The figures and settings are finely detailed (especially the scenes in China) and the animation is very smooth. Shaded colors and overlapping backgrounds help to reinforce our expectations of a 3D reality but the overall imagery is rooted in a two dimensional universe. Fully animated filmmaking had come a long way since Emile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie (1908) but more innovations yet lay ahead.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed was created by making drawings and then cutting out black cardboard and thin lead silhouettes, the posable limbs joined with wire hinges. These intricate silhouettes were laid over an illuminated glass table over backgrounds cut from layers of transparent paper, manipulated and shot one frame at a time from a camera suspended above the table. Before the production began, music was recorded so that the scenes could be timed to the rhythm of Wolfegang Zeller’s romantic original score. This ensured that the film would sync more perfectly with live orchestral accompaniment during exhibition. Beginning in 1923, Reiniger, her husband Carl Koch and their assistants created nearly 300,000 individual frames to produce the first full-length fully animated feature film. The project took the team three years to complete. The aforementioned Ruttman, who created a number of abstract animation films himself in the early 20s and reportedly worked on the amazing expressionist backrounds of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), collaborated on the film and created the lightning, fire, clouds and magic spells effects.
When the film premiered in Paris in July 1926 the avant-garde were enthusiasticly supportive as was Jean Renoir who reportedly loved it. He later worked with Koch and/or Reiniger on Madame Bovary (1933), La Marseillaise (1937) and other films. Unfortunately, Prince Achmed recieved mixed reviews when it was released in Berlin in September and reportedly only started to make money some fifty years(!) after its initial release.
I’ve haven't found any evidence of a theatrical release in the United States before 1978, but the American rights were purchased by the University Film Foundation of Harvard in 1931. In the U.S. the reputation of The Adventures of Prince Achmed seems to have wavered back and forth between avant-garde film and cleverly made cartoon. On April 26, 1931, a full five years after its release in Paris, the film was presented by The Société Anonyme at the Museum of Modern Art in An Evening with the Art of the Future. “It is hard to see how the evening concerned itself with ‘art of future.’” Edward Jewell of the Times quipped. “The films are entertaining though not revolutionary.”3 Other screenings of the movie were held that same year for charitable events such as a benefit for the Westchester Girl Scouts accompanied by The Boston Symphony Orechestra April 26, 1931 at the White Plains County Hall.4 In 1941-42 the film was back to being promoted as an experimental movie among such company as The Blood of a Poet (1930) and The Blue Light (1932) in the Fantastic & Surrealist Program at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in New York.5 Fifteen years later The Museum of Modern Art demoted the film’s experimental stature and advertised it as a kid’s film.6 A recently restored version of the film on DVD gives us another chance to evaluate and enjoy Reiniger’s cleverly consturcted, deliciously magical shadow play film. So, is The Adventures of Prince Achmed great art or great fun? In the opinion of this ever-growing fan of animation, it’s both!
1 Hu, Jubin. "Yingxi: The Initial Chinese Conception About Film." Screening the Past 11 (2000): 1-2.
2 "Returning Popularity of the Shadow Play," New York Times, 27 January 1907, SM4
3 Jewell, Edward. “Museum of Modern Art,” New York Times, 29 March 1931, X12
4 "Tarrytown Revue Will Aid Charities," New York Times, 26 April 1931, 28.
5 "Off The Beaten Track," New York Times, 14 December 1941, X6
6 “Children’s Entertainment,” New York Times, 14 November 1957, 52
Note: I'm searching for a citation format that best fits blogging and will try out a few different formats over the next few weeks.