The Adventures of Prince Achmed
A film by Lotte Reiniger
A mesmerizing but rarely seen 1926 animated feature by the amazing female German animator Lotte Reiniger, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is considered by many to be the first full-length animated film. The story is taken from The Arabian Nights: a young prince named Achmed embarks on a series of great adventures, including uniting with Aladdin and the Witch of the Fiery Mountains to save a beautiful princess. Produced in Germany, this color-tinted film utilizes laboriously cut out silhouettes to tell its story.
The earliest surviving animated feature is also an example of prodigious artistry in a minimal form. Based on tales of the Arabian Nights, Lotte Reiniger’s film uses silhouette figures photographed in stop-motion against voluptuous backgrounds. A gifted designer as well as a spellbinding storyteller, Reiniger creates a cohesive visual universe through which Prince Achmed rides on his magical horse, wooing a fair princess and battling a host of demons. This film may seem like an art film, but it has a zest to entrance any children or adults with open eyes and minds.
Inspired from childhood by the Chinese tradition of silhouette puppetry, Reiniger entered the teeming German film industry and devised silhouette sequences for Paul Wegener’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1918) and Fritz Lang’s 1922 Wagner film Siegfried’s Death. The following year, she was commissioned to make Prince Achmed, which she completed when she was just 26. Her next feature, the 1928 Dr. Dolittle and His Animals, had a score by Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill and Paul Dessau. With Carl Koch (her husband, producer and cinematographer for 40 years), she made several animated shorts in the early years of the Third Reich before leaving for England in 1937. That was the year of Snow White, which immediately established the fuller, softer, more realistic form of animation as the norm. Reiniger died in Dettenhausen, Germany, in 1981 at the age of 82, but the glory of Prince Achmed is immortal.
“…The technique of this type of film is very simple. As with cartoon drawings, the silhouette films are photographed movement by movement. But instead of using drawings, silhouette marionettes are used. These marionettes are cut out of black cardboard and thin lead, every limb being cut separately and joined with wire hinges. A study of natural movement is very important, so that the little figures appear to move just as men and women and animals do. But this is not a technical problem. The backgrounds for the characters are cut out with scissors as well, and designed to give a unified style to the whole picture. They are cut from layers of transparent paper.” —Lotte Reiniger, Sight & Sound (1936).
“I could cut silhouettes almost as soon as I could manage to hold a pair of scissors. I could paint, too, and read, and recite; but these things did not surprise anyone very much. But everybody was astonished about the scissor cuts, which seemed a more unusual accomplishment. The silhouettes were very much praised, and I cut out silhouettes for all the birthdays in the family. Did anyone warn me as to where this path would lead? Not in the least; I was encouraged to continue.” —Lotte Reiniger, Sight & Sound (1936).
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