At ninety-one years of age, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed still has all the ebullience and self-evident pride of a prototype unveiling itself. In retrospect it’s no wonder that Reiniger’s stop-motion synthesis of Arabian Nights, whose most fantastical elements the filmmaker deliberately chose for their live-action infeasibility, became a benchmark of cutout animation. Here we always will see a radiantly novel approach to aged traditions, in which fable, illustrated shadow-play, and silent film coalesce for the first time.
Of course today Prince Achmed (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed) has the aura of the antiquated, and no doubt that’s part of its charm, but what exhilaration in how a dense, five-act tale of sorcery, shape-shifting, and operatic royal courtship even now zips along with the momentum of its forward leap in form. As the first movie of its type, its length is in itself remarkable, not just for the labor required—some 250,000 individual images—but for upending the widely held expectation in 1926 that animated films should consist mostly of trifles clocking in at ten or fewer minutes. Released more than a decade before Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Reiniger’s hour-long epic looked as clearly into the medium’s future as into its past.
With the Hollywood studio system still in its infancy, and talkies officially still a year away, world cinema between the wars proved fertile ground for a wide range of narrative and aesthetic experiments. A product of its time, the German-made Prince Achmed exemplifies a European yearning to plumb the firmament of Middle Eastern folklore, complete with double-edged exoticism and now-discomfiting ideas about race and gender. It’s to Reiniger’s great credit that none of these problematic elements go wholly unexamined. One of the film’s most exquisite sequences, in which Achmed spies Pari Banu and her handmaidens bathing in a lake, amounts to establishing our hero as a Peeping Tom. But then, as cinema and its antecedents have time and again insisted, aren’t we all? At least partially mitigated by the implicit discretion of silhouettes, voyeurism here does not preclude empathy.
As mechanical entities, Reiniger’s silhouettes manifest the intrinsic modernism of exalted folk art: It’s perpetually bracing to encounter archetypal characters reconstituted as faceless fragmented bodies, wired together at every joint. What’s more, these figures celebrate negative space, born first by way of extraction from a formless void of cardboard, then again by the carefully controlled absence of light. Though the backgrounds change color, the figures and foreground landscape details do not. So, there’s an indirection, an art of suggestion, always at play. Yet the effect concentrates rather than attenuates the characters’ essential humanity. Sure, the renderings of architectural ornaments, of fronds and scimitars and feather dresses, are jewel-like in their precision, but the universality of the figures’ gestures—a swoon, a tiptoe, a tender caress—is what really gets to us. Like hieroglyphs, with flatness being of the essence, these images were among the first to show us how to dance on a tightrope between sincerity and whimsy. (Early in Act 4, to take but one memorable example, Aladdin makes his entrance by fending off a sort of saber-toothed Snuffleupagus.) The figures catch just the right balance of grandeur and intimacy, plus an extra frisson for being a hair’s breadth from absolute abstraction.
This was Reiniger’s robust pictorial talent for the duration of her fifty-eight-year career, prompted as much by the shadow-play Shakespeare she put on in her parents’ living room as by a formative apprenticeship in the wings of Max Reinhardt’s stage plays, where her privileged view of backlit actors drove home the fundamentals of expressive silhouettes. In Prince Achmed, made while Reiniger was in her twenties, the integrity of her technique fortified by frugality shines through; one clear benefit of attempting a collage epic was that it could be done with a crew of only five, including background artists Walter Ruttmann and Berthold Bartosch, filmmakers in their own right. Surely no one involved foresaw the ad hoc camera rig—with her cinematographer (and husband) Carl Koch shooting frame by frame straight down into a table made from tiered planes of backlit glass—later becoming the foundation of every animator’s toolkit.
In spite or maybe because of being made by hand over the course of three years with scant resources, the project still exudes a certain humility. In keeping with the self-apparent frugality of handmade puppets, the film’s special effects were often utterly quotidian, as in starlit skies made from holes poked in a translucent backdrop, or sometimes literally earthy, as in a molten genie made of shifting sand. Reiniger was known to describe herself as a “primitive caveman artist” or “that silhouette girl,” somehow without seeming coy, and in Prince Achmed we sense an aspiration toward durable entertainment rather than lasting contribution to an art form; naturally the latter is what she—and we—wound up with. Now digital imagery has made anything possible, and one unfortunate result is a strain for wonderment. By obvious contrast to 21st-century animated marvels, with their conspicuous outlay and hyperactive technical bravura, their bloodlessly over-determined story arcs, Reiniger’s clearly inspired way of transcending limitations, or at least seizing them as opportunities, reveals itself as the most vital essence of the craft.
As promised by its title, the film delivers ample adventures—its battle scenes staged with great clarity of space and action, but also the blunt and jubilant choreography of kids playing with their action figures. The simplicity is deceptive, or expansive: Flowing from one mythic tableau to the next, it has the scope of a symphonic work. It’s no surprise to learn that Reiniger timed her figures’ movement to the swells of strings and woodwinds of Wolfgang Zeller’s enthralling, nimbly calibrated score. Today’s blockbuster hacks can and should go to school on this stuff.
In other words, it isn’t merely ingratiating to say this particular ninety-one-year-old movie, forged from the very basic materials of willpower and imagination and paper and light, doesn’t look a day over brand new.
“I believe more in the truth of fairy tales than that found in the newspapers,” Reiniger once said, and while the endorsement of this creed by politicians can prove disastrous, it should always remain any artist’s prerogative. The key in Reiniger’s case was a sense, however casually worn, of responsibility. In The Adventures of Prince Achmed we get the impression of a precocious artist indulging her creative whims, but never without an audience in mind. The result isn’t just a work of enduring beauty, but also and always a shining aesthetic lodestar.
How Music Makes, and Saves, a Movie
Lotte Reiniger brought composer and Volksbühne house conductor Wolfgang Zeller onto The Adventure of Prince Achmed early in the animation process. She later described in “The Silent Picture” how they worked together: “We were anxious to provide our picture every support to ensure its coming over well to its audience. So, we had the musician Wolfgang Zeller collaborating with us throughout this time, composing the score. When for instance a procession was wanted, he composed a march, we measured with stop watches and tried to move the figures according to its beat. Or a Glockenspiel was executed to measures. In this period the better theatres employed an orchestra and for the more ambitious films special music was composed.” Zeller also conducted his own orchestra for the film’s preview screening in May 1926 and later by invitation for its premiere in London and Paris. To aid in conducting, Zeller’s score had illustrated cues pasted onto it, images from the film marking when a certain instrument or effect was called for. Years later, when restoring Prince Achmed (based on an English-language nitrate copy housed at the British Film Institute), Zeller’s performance copy was found preserved at the Library of Congress, which helped archivists verify that the film unfolds in its proper sequence. Originally a violinist, Zeller went on to compose scores for many features, including Walter Ruttmann’s symphony film Melody of the World (1929), Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), G.W. Pabst’s L’Atlantide (1932), and the 1959 Oscar-winning documentary Serengeti Shall Not Die, by Bernhard and Michael Grzimek.
Presented at A Day of Silents 2017 with live music by Philip Carli