A few weeks ago I was playing around on Wikipedia, looking at articles on Pixar and Brenda Chapman when I stumbled across the silent German movie The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the oldest surviving animated full-length film (and some consider it the first ever). Directed and animated by Lotte Reiniger, with assistance from her husband Carl Koch, it is one of the few feature-length films to utilize silhouette animation, in which figures and backdrops are painstakingly cut out of cardboard and moved over a backlight. The story is a mash up of several Arabian Nights tales: An evil magician creates a horse that flies and presents it to the king in order to obtain his daughter. The king’s son, Prince Achmed, tries it out and rockets up into the heavens. He eventually lands on a mystical island, where he falls for Peri Banu, princess of demons. After some coercing she decides to love him back, only to be kidnapped by an Asian king. Achmed rescues her, but must now defeat the demons who don’t want her to leave their island. They get the help of The Witch (the evil magician’s enemy) and meet up with Aladdin, who’s been trying to win the hand of Achmed’s sister. They defeat the demons together, with the brunt of the work done by The Witch (female empowerment!) and arrive home safely just in time for a double wedding. Sweet.
The story is interesting and told well, with minimal intertitles and good pacing, but really it is apparent that Reiniger made this film almost purely for its visual stimulation. It is breathtaking to see- the movements of the characters are so fine-tuned and choreographed, reflecting her interest in Chinese puppetry. Each individual set piece and figure contain a wealth of details and intricacies of design. Her dedication and sacrifice for art are easily recognized in every frame. In the spirit of the Expressionist movement influencing German cinema at the time, experimental smoky effects populate the magic scenes and the prints were evocatively color-tinted with soft blues, greens, and yellows, though unfortunately the original final print is missing and the available version is a restoration of the black and white. Additionally, the music is gorgeous and emotional, composed by Wolfgang Zeller as his first film score (the start of a prolific career). The Adventures of Prince Achmed is fascinating for any animation enthusiast, and will surely be entertaining for any fan of fantasy and adventure stories. Also let’s support women in animation! For once! (And really, female filmmakers in general.)by