The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed, 1926)

Director/Screenwriter/Animator: Lotte Reiniger

By Marilyn Ferdinand

When films were born, the inventiveness of the many, many film production companies that sprung up all over the world boggles the mind. In Berlin alone, in addition to the state-sponsored studio, there were nearly 300 independent film producers jostling for a place in front of a public eager to consume this new form of entertainment. Among them was a well-off fellow named Louis Hagen, who bought literal tons of film stock at a low price believing that his investment, a hedge against rising inflation, would grow exponentially as the demand for movies continued to grow. Lotte Reiniger, a gifted silhouette artist who ran in avant-garde art circles in Berlin, taught art to Hagen’s children and benefited from his largesse by being given film stock and a place in his attic to film what became The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the oldest surviving, feature-length animated film.

Reiniger apparently could create intricate silhouettes out of paper in nothing flat, and this ability gave her the confidence to create an entire Arabian Nights world, inspired by the fantasy novels she loved to read, using paper characters that had up to 50 hinged components. She and her small crew, including Carl Koch, her cinematographer and husband, bent for hours in the cramped attic, exposing 300,000 frames of stop action with the fragile and easily disturbed silhouettes and sets. Filming and editing took three years, and at first, no one would book the film. It took many years to earn back its investment, but there was no doubt that it eventually would when the standing-room-only audience for the first screening left the theatre dumbstruck at the marvel they had just seen. Some 84 years later, I and the hubby joined their ranks after we were privileged to attend a live-music screening of this important and awe-inspiring film at the Portage Theater, a surviving movie palace on Chicago’s Northwest Side that has done more than its part to keep vintage films alive and on display.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed tells interrelated stories, though they are mainly centered on Prince Achmed. He, his sister Princess Dinarzade, and their father The Caliph of Persia, hold a great reception on the palace grounds at which visiting dignitaries pay tribute with fine gifts. The finest of them all is a horse that can fly, offered by the scheming African Sorcerer. The Caliph offers bags of gold to buy the horse, but the Sorcerer will only accept Princess Dinarzade as his wife in exchange. When Achmed runs to her side to defend her, the Sorcerer has him mount the horse and sends him up in the air—without telling him how to return to Earth. The Sorcerer is imprisoned, but Achmed is set free to have the adventures he always dreamed of.

Achmed’s ascent is beautifully shot, with dark clouds obscuring his form as he rises higher and higher, then snow to reflect the cold outer atmosphere, and finally a blanket of stars. He discovers how to descend only after he has traveled far from his home—as the Sorcerer intended—and lands on the island of Wak Wak, home to spirits, including their beautiful ruler Pari Banu. They make him a warm welcome and fight for his attention in a scene of comic bawdiness, but once he sees their queen, he will have no other.

Interestingly, Achmed becomes a Peeping Tom when Pari Banu and her attendants fly with the aid of their bird-shaped cloaks to a pond where he is hiding and strip nude to bathe. Achmed is one of the few characters who has eyes, and they very expressively suggest his lust; the nude figures of the women even have nipples. It’s actually quite an erotic scene, and one that ends in outrage when Achmed steals Pari Banu’s cloak and forces her to leave with him on his flying horse.

The pair ends up in China, and Pari Banu must be rescued from being married off to the Emperor’s Fool. Achmed and Pari Banu meet the Witch of the Fiery Mountains. We marvel along with them as fire explodes from the mountain scenery, and the witch becomes their ally against her sworn enemy, the African Sorcerer. But the spirits return to recapture Pari Banu and bring her back to Wak Wak, where they intend to punish her for agreeing to leave them because she has fallen for Achmed. At this point, the story of Aladdin intrudes, as only the one who possesses the lamp may enter the spirits’ lair. We learn how he found the lamp and won Princess Dinarzade by created a palace and riches for her, but how the Sorcerer then stole the lamp, the palace, and the Princess in one fell swoop. An epic battle between Achmed, Aladdin, the Mountain Witch, and the Sorcerer ensues that’s really quite thrilling, and soon all is made right again.

The silhouettes themselves and the multiplane settings in which they interact are highly detailed and absolutely beautiful. For example, elaborate star-decorated robes, amazing in their cut-out detail, clothe Pari Banu and Princess Dinarzade, and set pieces such as the stolen palace floating on a cloud back to Persia have mystery and wonder written all over them. But I was most impressed by the amount of personality Reiniger was able to infuse through posture and natural-looking actions. When Pari Banu and Achmed kiss, it looks more real than many of the Hollywood kisses I’ve seen in countless movies of the Golden Era. Her attention to detail, not only in the forms but also in the actions the characters take, is astonishing. For example, Achmed is fighting a hydra-like demon summoned by the Sorcerer. Every time he cuts off one of its heads, it grows back. The Mountain Witch comes to help him by cauterizing each neck that has lost its head, thereby preventing it from growing a new one. This attention to a small plot point shows more care than many of the CGI action films we see today. And the color tints, restored to this film in 1998, give a jewel-like brilliance to this fantastical tale.

Reinigier, we were told before the screening, was a product of Victorian-era thinking, and her silhouette art comes from that era. Yet she was embraced by the avant garde and created a work that looks startlingly modern even today. Perhaps not coincidentally, animator Nina Paley used hinged forms (though they were not animated via stop action) and shadow puppets in her film Sita Sings the Blues, another tale of the exotic Orient that many consider ground-breaking for another reason—it is under a Creative Commons license. These two women showed the future the way, and I, for one, am thrilled and grateful.

  • Tinky spoke:
    18th/05/2010 to 2:14 pm

    Stunning–and not something I knew about. Thanks as always……..

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/05/2010 to 2:20 pm

    Tinky, It’s available on DVD, so go have yourself a ball with it!

  • Greg F spoke:
    18th/05/2010 to 2:24 pm

    I’ve seen clips of this on YouTube but hope to one day get the chance to see it as you did. It’s simply amazing from what I’ve seen.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/05/2010 to 2:58 pm

    Greg – It really holds one’s attention. The storytelling is as skillful as the silhouettes and backgrounds, and that’s really what it’s all about.

  • Charles "Buckey" Grimm spoke:
    18th/05/2010 to 3:56 pm

    A Great film. It is a great review, and only confirms as you mentioned how quickly the industry showed creativity in every area of film. The development of the motion picture industry was not only rapid, but in many ways intense.

    BG

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/05/2010 to 4:34 pm

    Right you are, Buckey. I think it didn’t hurt that this film was created during the heyday of German Expressionism. The creativity in all areas in Germany (film, architecture, fine art) was mind-blowing.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    18th/05/2010 to 8:33 pm

    “The silhouettes themselves and the multiplane settings in which they interact are highly detailed and absolutely beautiful. For example, elaborate star-decorated robes, amazing in their cut-out detail, clothe Pari Banu and Princess Dinarzade, and set pieces such as the stolen palace floating on a cloud back to Persia have mystery and wonder written all over them.”

    Aye Marilyn, beautiful descriptive writing, supported by these glorious screen caps that provide the evidence of these historical landmark’s visual magnificence. The laborious process that took Reitinger and Koch three years to complete received a rapturous response from audiences in 1926. The dazzling imagery is wedded to a striking set design, and the silhouettes of palaces, forests, monsters, heroes, villains, princesses and caliphs, are as remarkable today as they were so many decades back. This is not a film that should be remembered as a historical landmark (like BIRTH OF A NATION) but one distinguished for it’s consummate artistry.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/05/2010 to 9:47 pm

    Well said, Sam, and yet it is a landmark in film history. I think it’s important to recognize what film can do, and especially in this year without a single female director in competition at Cannes, what a woman created and how well accepted she was among the geniuses of the German avant garde art scene. Things have changed for the worse – 3D is our big effect in 2010?!

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    19th/05/2010 to 7:09 am

    Aye Marilyn. How true!

Leave your comment






(*)mandatory fields.

What others say about us

"You put a lot of love into your blog." – Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert's Journal
"Marilyn and Roderick … always raising the tone." – Farran Smith Nehme, The Self-Styled Siren
"Honestly, you both have made me aware of films I've never seen, from every era. Mega enriching." – Donna Hill, Strictly Vintage Hollywood
"You have my highest praise!" – Andreas, Pussy Goes Grrr




Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Blogs

Chicago Resources

General Film Resources

Categories

Archives