Essential: THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926)

TB: For the month of August I asked Jlewis to select a theme and choose five films. He chose foreign animation. I am going to be reading these reviews along with the rest of you…then adding a few comments afterward. Since this is an area of film I know little about, my comments will be more opinion-based, with me stating what moved me or what I felt was effective.

As Jlewis discusses below, the first title he chose, PRINCE ACHMED, is a bit difficult to find online. There are some clips on YouTube, along with a documentary about the filmmaker, Lottie Reiniger. A complete version of PRINCE ACHMED is on the Internet Archive, with the original German titles and Spanish subtitles. That is the version I watched. Anyway, let’s turn things over to Jlewis…

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JL: DIE GESCHICHTE DES PRINZEN ACHMED a.k.a. THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926) is a very unique, one of a kind motion picture that is unlike anything else you would see, except maybe Michel Ocelot’s French efforts made eight decades later… also generally unseen by most reading these posts. It is a 65 minute fantasy made primarily by one woman, Lotte Reiniger, with just a few fellow artists of Berlin’s bohemian pre-Hitler scene assisting mostly with the background art and technical needs, among them the legendary Walter Ruttmann, Berthold Bartosch, Alexander Kardan, Walter Türk and Carl Koch, the last being her husband and key camera operator.

It is pretty much an “indy” film by a female director long before such things became fashionable, a special project that consumed her for three years straight in its making. The third feature length animated production ever made, at a time when animated cartoons rarely lasted more than 20 minutes and probably three quarters of them were under 6 at most, it is also the oldest over-an-hour cartoon still in existence today. Argentina’s Quirino Christiani’s previous efforts of 1917-18 are still considered lost and one supposedly destroyed by the authorities in power for political reasons.

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The primary technique employed is silhouette cut-out animation, using flat cardboard and paper cut-outs painted jet-black with limbs and other body parts attached intricately to make them movable, then animated frame by frame for the camera. The overall visual effect is inspired by the stick and hand manipulated puppets of European and Chinese shadow plays.

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Among the earliest examples of this technique still surviving is the British short THE CLOWN AND THE DONKEY (1910), made by Charles Armstrong for Charles Urban’s company… and it is not even his first since he made an even earlier SPORTING MICE that is now believed to be lost. Lotte Reiniger did her first short silhouette animation in December 1919, making six shorts total before starting this ambitious feature in 1923.

It isn’t employed throughout the entire film. Other interesting effects include paint-on glass for the genie coming out of the lamp and other dissolve-like visuals, this being an animation style that Caroline Leaf later popularized in the seventies with her National Film Board of Canada work. Also there appears to be some pioneering optical effects involving photographed fire in one key scene.

Despite being made 11 years before Walt Disney’s first feature, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, it is not “primitive” in any way and remains a fresh and dazzling spectacle to view even today. Speaking of Disney, he was well aware of its existence at the time he was making that feature, one that the Hollywood press would dub the first of its kind when it actually wasn’t, and studied her early use of a multi-plane system involving glass sheets with scenery painted and figures moving on them, each carefully placed a distance apart to create added depth. In PRINCE ACHMED, the effects are particularly good in the shot of our hero flying a mechanical horse over a vast city-scape.

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The story utilizes the same original sources as THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, ALADDIN (and his lamp) and 1001 ARABIAN NIGHTS, all fodder for many live-action and animated features throughout the century; the animated kind also include the popular 1992 Disney feature and a 1959 UPA-Columbia production featuring Mr. Magoo. What all of these films have in common is that they have virtually nothing in common, involving characters sporting the same names but doing totally different activities on screen.

For example, in both the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks and 1940 Alexander Korda Technicolor versions of THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, Achmed or Achmad is a lover of the Princess but Reiniger has him as the royally privileged brother of Princess, given the very specific name of Disnarde here. Instead, he falls in love with Pari Banu, the princess/queen of Wak Wak, and saves Aladdin so he can become Achmed’s brother-in-law.

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There is a villain in all of these film adaptations who challenges our heroes. In the other films, he is often labeled Jaffar; here, he is merely an “African sorcerer” who creates a flying horse that purposely sends Achmed away so he can take over his father’s kingdom. Despite temporarily being imprisoned by Achmed and Disnarde’s caliph father, he manages to escape and later abducts Pari Banu to sell off as a future bride for a Chinese emperor (cue some mild but notable ethnic “oriental” stereotyping here) whom Achmed, again, must save her from. Meanwhile, his sister’s love interest… Aladdin himself… has adventures of his own, battling a bizarre tree monster whom Achmed rescues him from.

Despite its episodic nature, the story is not terribly challenging to follow, although I was watching an online copy lacking English subtitles. However the action does happen a bit too fast at times. For example, Achmed battles a couple of beasties as well as the sorcerer in very rapid succession, including a multi-headed hydra that grows more heads as each one is hacked off by his sword.

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In later stop-motion spectacles, Ray Harryhausen took his time with his similar battle scenes. At times, Reiniger’s battles feel like some drug-induced acid trip with Achmed succeeding even faster than Mighty Mouse. Perhaps she could have spent more time building these up better even if it extended the running time from 65 to, say, 75 minutes.

There is a witch who helps Achmed and she is rather interesting herself. She is a thrumpy, ugly looking dame with curious plants growing from her clothing. Yet she is quite the heroine and I wonder if Reiniger saw a little of herself in this creation as she assists Achmed in defeating the hydra so she can have Aladdin’s lamp…and she wants it for positive reasons rather than evil ones like the villain sorcerer. Regarding him, there is a climatic battle of wits between the two that Walt Disney’s crew obviously analyzed when they worked on a similar scene in SWORD IN THE STONE between Mad Madam Mim and Merlin: each transforms into different animals (scorpion, giant rooster, etc.) to conquer the other.

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Unfortunately this labored production was not a huge success when it opened in Berlin in May 1926, failing to recoup its costs initially. According to a great documentary on her life, some of her aging friends interviewed in the 1980s after her passing felt that the overall look of this film, so different than the live action features general audiences were used to, may have rendered it too unorthodox for their tastes. She would later attempt a second feature, but DR. DOOLITTLE wound up as a “featurette” instead. Many other short films were made in Germany, France (after she left as Hitler came to power) and finally England where she settled in her later years. Both her and her husband also worked with the great Jean Renoir in several live-action projects of great interest.

Initially this was shown with color tints, but the master nitrate print was lost over time and all copies that were made existed in black and white. Thanks to enough notes taken, the tinting effects could be digitally added a second time around for its 1998-99 restoration for the DVD market.

This documentary excerpt (the full film is a great one to watch but hard to find online) covers the making of this special film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTOe5hCmwB4

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TB: Thanks Jlewis. When I watched the film, it seemed quite lovely. But I also found it somewhat primitive. As you stated, Lottie had been making short animated films for several years before she attempted this longer project; and this film took her three years to make.

The one thing that kept pulling me out of the story is that after she does movement with some of the characters– whether it’s a flying scene, or a battle scene– the characters suddenly stop. There are pauses each time after the characters move. I feel the film is not edited well; where she should have gone in and snipped out those extra frames where the characters are still for a second or two between actions. It would have felt that the motion was more continuous if she had.

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Perhaps the reason she has these pauses in between actions is that it is meant to evoke the use of puppets, where the puppeteer does a motion with the character on a stick, then stops for the audience to respond, even applaud. But it sort of defeats the purpose of an animated feature, which in terms of action is supposed to resemble live performance. Actors on a stage, or actors in a scene from a movie, do not keep pausing.

Another thing that gets a thumbs down from me is the fact that all the silhouettes are in black. I think she could have been more creative and had some figures in gray or dark green. Or even reversed the effect, and for some sequences, had the background in black, with the figures in white. It got too predictable that the characters were always in black. Also, because they were in black, we couldn’t see any specific facial expressions or distinguishing marks to convince us they were real and not cardboard cutouts.

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Now she does present the genie in light blue. He is the only character whose facial expressions we get to see clearly. It would have been nice if other characters had such detailed facial features.

Maybe during the fire sequence, some of the characters could have turned red as if they were becoming part of the fire. Yet, she keeps them in black silhouette. It just seemed too easy, not differentiating the characters’ color schemes.

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You already mentioned how some of the action scenes feel rushed. I feel she’s jamming too much story into 65 minutes. It’s easy to see why the 1992 Disney animated feature limits Achmed and focuses on Aladdin. You cannot really have two main protagonists, and two love stories of equal importance, since it sort of pulls the audience away from one story when the focus suddenly switches to the other story, then back again. A clearer narrative is needed, with one main hero and heroine.

Now if this film was built around the villain, and it was about evil schemes against these different heroes and heroines, then maybe that would have worked better.

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The payoff would have been greater when it came time for the sorcerer to do battle with the witch. In some ways, it would have been like Oberon and Titania’s story from A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, which might have better unified all the separate story strands.

I don’t dislike the film. It’s charming and quite visually impressive. But I am reluctant to throw the word pioneer around since I feel that’s an overused term and sometimes gives early filmmakers a “free pass” as to why they may not have been more effective. Personally, I think she probably should have spent more than three years on it; and as you say, she could have expanded on some of it, to create stronger pacing and cohesion. It’s a valiant effort but ultimately for me, not as satisfying overall as I expected it would be.

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