The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). 65 minutes. Written and directed by Lotte Reiniger. Cinematography by Carl Koch. Based on The Arabian Nights.
Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the earliest surviving feature-length animated film. Based on The Arabian Nights and brought to life with silhouettes, its story is both refined and complex. Prince Achmed’s noble characters travel around the world, undertake fantastic quests, and perform heroic deeds in plotlines that interconnect and move fluidly across geography and time. Its art direction is also sublime. Although Reiniger’s use of silhouettes was not to become the norm in mainstream European and American animated films, her exquisite work hints at the possibilities inherent in animation before cel art became prominent. The movie is a shining example of the beauty, sophistication, and inventiveness typical of the late silent period.
When the story begins, a nameless African magician visits the court of the Caliph and presents him with a magic horse in the hopes of trading it for the Caliph’s daughter, Dinarsade. Her brother, Prince Achmed, protests, so as punishment the magician sets Achmed on the horse and sends it high into the air. Achmed soon learns how to control the horse and lands on the island of Wak Wak, where he spies the beautiful princess Pari Banu removing her special flying clothes and bathing in a lake. He whisks her away, but soon the magician reappears, kidnaps her, and gives her to a Chinese king, who plans to marry her to his favorite. Achmed arrives to free her, but the magician steals her away and hides her in a mountain. Achmed learns that the mountain can only be opened with Aladdin’s lamp, but Aladdin tells him he has lost the lamp, his true love (Princess Dinarsade), and a magic palace he has created. Eventually, Aladdin retrieves the lamp and uses it to help Achmed and a mountain witch battle the magician. In the end, the magician is defeated, Achmed rejoins Pari Banu, and Aladdin is reunited with Dinarsade.
As I mentioned, The Adventures of Prince Achmed does not use cel-based animation. Instead, it employs silhouettes constructed out of cardboard and thin sheets of lead. Although it was inspired by the aesthetics of Indonesian shadow puppetry, Prince Achmed is not a film of a live, in-motion performance. Rather, the movie uses stop-motion photography to bring the silhouettes to life, with Reiniger moving each silhouette only slightly for each shot. This was a slow, painstaking process that she labored from 1923 to 1926 to complete, and the result is a film of astonishing beauty. Part of this beauty stems from Prince Achmed’s striking stylized appearance (a kind of fantasia of German, Indonesian, and Arabian art), but our appreciation of the film’s appearance also comes from understanding how it was created. Knowing that each puppet movement is the product of a human hand delicately and subtly altering a silhouette is, for me, extremely moving.
I have been discussing how rich the artwork is, but it must be said that Prince Achmed, while exceedingly graceful, is also rather flat—flat not in a dramatic or artistic sense but in a spatial sense. The 2D silhouettes seem so far away from modern 3D animated productions that lunge and push at the audience. And yet the characters, while spatially limited, nevertheless come across as delicate, nuanced, and wholly distinct from each other. We would never confuse Pari Banu in her elegant bird clothes or even as a bathing, shadowy nude with Dinarsade in her court ensemble, and this is despite the fact that all of the characters appear as flat black images, sliding and creeping slowly through equally black plants, rocks, mountains, and palaces.
Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of the movie is how successfully it creates characters out of flat materials in only one color and without sound, making them seem human and whole. Each silhouette, in addition to having a unique appearance, develops its own personality over the course of Prince Achmed’s brief running time. We can detect Pari Banu’s distress and sorrow when she is kidnapped, Aladdin’s timidity and awe when he first summons the genie with his magic lamp, the magician’s duplicitous nature as his eyeballs move from side to side, and Prince Achmed’s earnestness. The successful characterizations are related to the minute movements that are produced by Reiniger’s careful manipulation of the figures through stop-motion photography. After a while, I forgot I was watching something with a rather stark design scheme and appreciated how fine the images were—not only in terms of the visuals but also in terms of the emotional content.
The most memorable images from Prince Achmed—Prince Achmed flying through the air on his magic horse, Pari Banu bathing, Aladdin and the genie in the cave, the battle on the mountain—strike me as being so unlike a modern-day animation blockbuster like Disney’s Frozen, with its round, wholesome characters and questionable use of color. In comparison, so much of Reiniger’s film is angular, twisting, and rendered in strong contrast. Everything and everyone in it is equipped with what seem like feeling tentacles: clothing that trails curled fabric and plants that extend in flourishes. Subsequently, both animated characters and inanimate objects in the story seem to be alive. Even the tinted backgrounds throb with echoing light, and the black silhouettes of people and foregrounded landscapes offer a strong contrast to the deep, changing colors of the environments.
The backgrounds and landscapes come to life in other ways in this picture. Caves swarm with genies; long, curving snakes emerge from rocks; mountains belch forth fantastic creatures. Everything is metamorphosing. The final battle between the mountain witch and the African magician involves them adopting the guises of many animals: birds, fish, a big cat. Even the beautiful Pari Banu transforms from bird to human when she removes her magical garb. For a time she wears Achmed’s cloak, then in the Chinese court she dons clothes that I suppose have a Chinese air. It is a little hard to say as everyone’s attire is a kind of fashion reverie: their clothing both evokes something real and suggests something unreal.
The movie’s metamorphosing extends not only to appearances but also to plot lines. Aladdin tells the story of his discovery of the magic lamp, revealing that his own life has changed dramatically, from his days as a tailor, to his time living in the magic palace with Princess Dinarsade, to life on the run from the Caliph. His plot suggests that movement from form to form and station to station are important parts of the human story in this world. Prince Achmed’s characters are constantly changing in terms of their physical beings and because of their environments, but what endures is their devotion to each other, their calm acceptance of supernatural plot twists, their receptiveness to strangers, and their resourceful use of their surroundings to succeed in their quests.
Early animation was not conceived of as art exclusively for children but was aimed instead at a general audience, which means adults were very much included in its purview. Still, I was pleased to see that Prince Achmed was recently screened as a children’s Saturday matinee at the Pacific Film Archive; it is a wonderful alternative to modern-day children’s animation. Young people who can follow a complex narrative may very well enjoy it, but they will need to be able to read movie intertitles.