Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed

 (Lotte Reiniger, Germany, 1926) 65 minutes


Directors: Lotte Reiniger, Carl Koch
Screenplay: Lotte Reiniger
Animators: Lotte Reiniger, Carl Koch
Cinematography: Carl Koch
Collaborators: Berthoit Bartosch, Alexander Kardan, Walter Ruttmann

Reviews and notes

2016 Singapore (German Film Festival)
2017 San Francisco (Silent Film Festival)

The oldest extant animated feature film, Lotte Reiniger's exquisite shilouette animation took her small team three years and more than 250,000 frames to create. It was first exhibited in 1926, thus stealing a significant march on Disney's 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Scooping the flying and fantastical elements from a handful of Arabian Night stories, chosen to show off the transformative possibilities of Reiniger's delicate hand-snipped animations and settings, this is a wonderfully inventive piece. It's far from a saccharine fairytale, its images jaw-droppingly pliable and protean for early animation. Watching the African Sorcerer stretch himself into a kangaroo or duel with the Fire Witch as a sinuous, snapping succession of animals (a sequence so effective that it was recreated in Disney's The Sword in the Stone many year's later), you can see an inventive fierceness about the film's set pieces. Filigreed and elaborate, the figure outlines nimbly articulate their characters. Manipulated with balletic grace they swoop giddily through avant-gardist Walter Ruttman's tinted multi-plane landscapes, which give the film a more abstract feel than other Reiniger adaptations.
- Kate Stables, Sight & Sound, October 2013.

Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is generally the movie people bring up when discussing the first feature-length animated film, but there were several others before that. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the earliest surviving animated feature, but not nearly as well-known as Snow White, in part because it's German and silent and different-looking. Look past that, though, and you'll find a fun adventure movie as well as a piece of cinematic history.

An African sorcerer has designs on the city of the Caliph; he visits and shows his wonders off to the Caliph and his daughter, Dinarsade. He disposes of Dinarsade's brother Achmed by sticking him on a flying mechanical horse that rises in the air uncontrollably. Achmed gets control somewhere over the far-off island of Wak-Wak, where he romances the Princess Pari Bunu. But, the Sorcerer's influence is far-reaching, and Achmed will require the help of the Fire Mountain Witch and the legendary Aladdin to rescue the ladies and return home.

Director Lotte Reiniger (assisted by her husband, Carl Koch) had a very specific style, working not so much with drawn figures but with cut-outs. Thus, the characters appear almost exclusively as silhouettes, with facial expression much less a tool than body language. While describing the technique brings to mind static puppets moving only on crude pivots, Reiniger and Koch manage to create some amazing effects, not just creating rather detailed figures that move naturally, but by animating them so smoothly that the shapes on screen are often extraordinarily fluid (few people using this style of animation do so well with smoke and liquid eighty years later). Indeed, some of the effects appear to make use of something akin to the multiplane photography Disney would later pioneer, giving a feeling of depth to the world in which these flat creations live.

Like many silent films, Prince Achmed breaks neatly into its five acts, and there are times when it seems like it might have originally been conceived as a serial. This makes for an action-packed film that seems bigger than the sixty-five minutes it runs at 24 frames per second, since every segment is packed with enough story and action to survive on its own. The writing is not always perfect - when Achmed meets Aladdin, it suddenly seems like much more time must have passed during his adventures than we'd previously assumed, and the witch is powerful enough that the movie's title character winds up practically on the sidelines during some of the confrontations with the sorcerer.

Reiniger makes up for that in making her characters surprisingly expressive, considering the medium. Though this is a fairy tale retold, the personalities are clear and amusing, from the sorcerer's uncaring shrug when Achmed is carried away to Achmed clearly having a good time when his crash-landing on Wak-Wak lands him among the Princess's handmaidens. There's a bit of awestruck kid in Aladdin. Of course, there's also some caricaturing done for the African and Chinese characters that may not fly today, even considering the abstracted nature of silent cut-out animation.
- Jay Seaver,, 12/04/10

2001 screening: 16mm

2018 screening: HD
Transferred in high-definition by L'Immagine Ritrovata from the 35mm restoration prepared by Deutsches Filmmuseum Frankfurt. The presentation features a stereo recording of the original 1926 music score by Wolfgang Zeller.

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