1926 was a year of exciting new technologies that helped to shape the world into how we now see it. No, not the birth of Queen Elizabeth II, nor the launch of the first liquid-fuel rocket (although that is pretty damn cool) – I’m referring to the different types of media we consume and how we consume them.
In January 1926, John Logie Baird made the world’s first public demonstration of a working television set; the first feature length movie using Vitaphone technology (synchronized musical score & special effects) was released to incredible commercial success; and the oldest surviving feature-length animated film was released in Germany– THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926). Following in the footsteps of Alice Guy-Blache, Lotte Reiniger would be one of the first female directors of a feature length film. Reiniger pioneered the use of silhouette animation. Making 1926 a year of innovation.
I had the luxury of the optimum viewing experience: restored picture quality with the intended musical accompaniment, and special features that could enhance the watch. As I had seen THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED before, I opted to re-watch it with an alternative English narration by actress Penelope McGhie. I’d never heard of this feature for silent films before, so I was curious to watch a film this way. It was essentially a dramatic reading of the intertitles (translated from Reiniger’s German text) overlaying the film. It works well here and gives the feeling of a visual audiobook; the animation style certainly helps with that. Most importantly though, it is not intrusive and only enhanced the experience. If you get the option of watching a silent film in this format, I would definitely recommend it – especially if you are new to the silent era!
THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED tells the story of a young prince named Achmed who unwittingly sets off on a globe-trotting adventure via a flying horse conjured by a sorcerer. This journey takes him from Baghdad to China with a stop-off in the magical land of Wak-Wak in-between. He meets a princess, a witch, and even Aladdin on his journey. He battles the sorcerer and demons in order to return home. The movie used various aspects from the classic Middle Eastern collection of stories One Thousand and One Nights, more commonly known in English as Arabian Nights.
To fully realize the story that Reiniger wanted to tell, animation was fundamental to her success. I’m not necessarily saying she couldn’t depict magical worlds, demon fights, and a flying horse in 1926 using live action, I’m simply saying it wouldn’t be anywhere near as memorable or visually impressive as the final product. The images that the animators were able to create are astounding and live long in the memory. It may be the oldest surviving animated film, but it is hard to think of many that have come since that surpass it in sheer visual beauty.
Animation was still in its infancy when THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED was released. Two previous Argentinian feature-length films are speculated to have been created before but they have long since been lost, leaving only animated-shorts that satisfied audiences at the time. Making an animated film was a huge undertaking in the 1920s and PRINCE ACHMED spent three years in development before releasing to the world. 24 frames were needed for every second of footage shot meaning that in the 67 minutes of run-time there were approximately 96,000 individual frames used!
The painstaking effort of Lotte Reiniger and Carl Koch (her husband and creative partner) was worth it. Silhouettes of the characters and environments were hand-cut with their own distinct style. Despite everything essentially being black paper with no faces, every character has their own design separating them from one another making the film flow seamlessly for the viewer. The various environments inhabited in the film were all crafted with a unique visual style which makes it a treat for the eyes when Achmed’s adventures take him from one place to the next.
The look of the film is completed through the coloured backdrops of each location. Yellows, blues, greens, and reds are all used perfectly to capture the different environments of the adventure, helping the audience understand the basic geography of the film. The best thing about it though is how utterly fantastic it looks. The contrast of the black silhouettes over the bright vibrant colours looks amazing. Every frame of the film could be displayed on your living room wall and never look out of place. To make the environments really ‘pop’, Reiniger invented the multiplane camera, creating depth in the frame by having multiple layers of scenery stacked on top of each other. This gave the illusion of a vibrant world in the background ready to be explored.
In fact, Reiniger’s style is so iconic, once you view her work you see her influence in other places too – most notably in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS- PART 1 (2010). The acclaimed animation used for the telling of the The Three Brothers story about the deathly hallows is a direct homage to Reiniger and a compliment of the highest order to her brilliance.
Lotte Reiniger was the pioneer of animation who seems to have sadly faded from the forefront of discussion. I will blame Walt Disney and the House of Mouse for this. They seem to have convinced the world that animation started and ended with them, which is absolutely not the case. SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES (1937) might have been a great achievement in 1937, but the multiplane camera patented by Disney was based on the Reiniger’s design a decade earlier.
If there is anything holding THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED back, it is the story at the heart of the film. At times it feels like a compilation of multiple stories overlapping with one another – which makes sense due to its origins being rooted in One Thousand and One Nights. The reluctance of the film not to focus on certain arcs more than others left some underexplored plot points by the finale however. That’s not to say the story isn’t enjoyable, it is. I just think it could have used an extra 15/20 minutes run-time to fully realise all elements of the plot. This is obviously easy for me to say 94 years later when animation is not the gruelling manual task it once was though… so I won’t hold it against the film too much. I’m just nit-picking.
THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED is an all-time classic that paved the way for the animation industry to become what it is today. And who knows, maybe without Reiniger’s achievements we never would have gotten SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018), and that’s is not a world I want to live in!