The Adventures of Prince Achmed Review
Cinema’s most memorable use of silhouette occurs at the conclusion of John Ford’s 1956 Western The Searchers. The character of Ethan Edwards (played by John Wayne) is caught in the doorway of his family’s home, only his outline discernible. The reason why this image has remained so indelible is that the audience is allowed to impose their own emotions on this figure having viewed the events that have occurred before.
Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 fantasy The Adventures of Prince Achmed, generally considered to be the first feature length animated film, narrates its entire tale through the use of silhouette. Relying on cardboard figures and no dialogue, it is worth questioning whether this film can convey emotions or produce something akin to John Ford’s effort. After all, there is no two hour build up; rather, the audience is thrown straight into the action.
Thankfully, Reiniger is a director of great skill, creating huge meaning through the tiniest details. Her greatest strength is the way in which she conveys the characters through their body language and design. Take, for example, the film’s principle villain, an evil sorcerer. Constructed entirely of angles and pointed features, the creation makes the audience immediately aware of what it is. And yet, Reiniger proceeds to build upon these basics by adding tiny little details. The sorcerer’s first scene sees him hatching a plan to kidnap Achmed’s sister and upon doing so he magics himself a mirror with which to admire his fiendishness. This single throwaway moment, which most directors would ignore – especially those working in the time-consuming discipline of animation – suggests the sorcerer’s vanity and confidence as well as his more overt ‘evilness’, elevating the character to a genuinely believable being.
Having correctly identified the sorcerer as her strongest character, Reiniger then utilises him as a contrast to all the others. Prince Achmed, the film’s protagonist, is constructed of softer edges and nimbler movements; an effective shorthand contrast that allows Reiniger to concentrate more fully upon the narrative.
The plot is taken from the Arabian Nights and manages to cram numerous incidents into its brief 66 minutes running time. Amongst those features, we find a kidnapping, a flying horse, evil spirits, Chinese Emperors and Aladdin, as well as an abundance of magical books and objects, whether they be lamps, lakes or mountains. With such an array of characters and situations, it often seems that the film will descend into “one damned thing after another” territory. Yet Reiniger is careful to ensure that everything deserves its place. Moreover, it allows for a terrific pace to develop, making The Adventures of Prince Achmed as purely enjoyable as both the 1925 and 1941 versions of The Thief Of Bagdad - both of which were similarly taken from the Arabian Nights.
The other advantage of the eventful plotting is that it never allows Reiniger to get over-indulgent with the animation. As said, she works best with the tiniest details, and this simplicity aids the storytelling immensely. That isn’t to suggest that the film is lacking visually; indeed, the use of tinting and intricate background designs are often remarkably beautiful and the film could be freeze-framed at any point to reveal just how much Reiniger cares about her filmmaking.
However, it is worth pointing out that Reiniger had a number of collaborators for this effort. Wolfgang Zeller was employed to create a synchronous score which is recreated here, providing perfect dramatic accompaniment; Walter Ruttman, who would later make the hugely influential Berlin: Symphony of a City, worked on the background designs which firmly ground the film in its own reality; and Carl Koch, Reiniger’s husband, worked on the screenplay, a role which would later lead to regular work with Jean Renoir during the thirties on classics such as La Regle du jeu. This Renoir connection is interesting insofar as the famed French director played a huge part in getting this film recognised outside of Germany. Upon viewing Reiniger’s film, Renoir and other members of the avant-garde promoted it heavily, and enabled it to achieve great success in Paris. There is, however, something incongruous in the fact that these experimental filmmakers should take such a delight in a fairly straightforward fantasy. Of course, Reiniger treated her work with the utmost seriousness , as is evident throughout the film, but one would have thought that her fellow German animators such as Hans Richter (director of the Rhythmus films) or Oskar Fischinger would have more befitted attention from the avant-garde.
This also points to the fact that Reiniger was very much an individualistic talent . As well as bearing little resemblance to her animation compatriots, the director had little connection with her female contemporaries. The films of Lois Weber or Dorothy Arzner (and later Leni Riefenstahl) seem miles away both literally and thematically, and there is scant connection with other Arabian Nights films. Directors as diverse as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Michael Powell and Byron Haskin have approached the material since, though none capture the same feel as Reiniger despite their individual merits. Indeed, for the only notable film to have an affinity with The Adventures of Prince Achmed, one needs to look to a more obscure entry in the Arabian Nights canon; namely, Gene Kelly’s 1956 ballet film Invitation To The Dance. The Sinbad the Sailor segment is similarly devoid of dialogue but possesses a similar passion for its medium (animation for Reiniger, dance for Kelly) that creates truly magical results. Indeed, it is Reiniger’s love for cinema that makes The Adventures of Prince Achmed as fresh and entertaining today as it must have been almost ninety years ago.
Given that The Adventures of Prince Achmed is likely to appeal to only a small minority of the DVD buying public, it is remarkable that the BFI have done such a splendid job on the release. The print, restored in 1999, looks almost perfect and allows for a full appreciation of Reiniger’s skills. Moreover, the original tinting is in place, making this as close to the original screening as we are likely to get.
Emphasising this even more is the presence of Wolfgang Zeller’s original score. Presented in stereo, the sound is absolutely perfect. Keeping an eye on the children in the audience, the BFI also offer an optional voiceover to translate the German intertitles. Otherwise, English subtitles are available.
Topping this achievement however is the inclusion of Katja Raganelli’s 1999 documentary Lotte Reiniger: Homage to the Inventor of Silhouette Film. An hour in length, this piece covers the director’s entire career from her beginnings in the 1920s to her later work for the BBC and American television. Most impressive is the fact that Raganelli had access to numerous materials including Reiniger’s original cardboard figures. Interspersed with clips from the director’s various works, the documentary gives an impression not only of Reiniger’s working methods – with Prince Achmed discussed at length – but also her remarkable life, which included friendships with figures such as Jean Renoir and Bertolt Brecht. All in all, this is a perfect accompaniment to a perfect film.