I first saw Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) years ago in a crowded theater at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The combination of the live musical accompaniment, the warm theater — in contrast to the harsh winter outside — and the late afternoon screening time meant that, within minutes, I fell asleep. While this is not my typical movie-going behavior, and having revisited Reiniger’s silent silhouette animation film since then, it feels fitting that I dozed off. The world that The Adventures of Prince Achmed creates is one of dreams and fantasy; words like “enchanting” and “ethereal” are often used to describe it. As British film critic Pamela Hutchinson once wrote of the film, “we seem to see imagination at work.” Reiniger-as-artist/storyteller presents a cinematic ballet that exists outside of our reality, equally influenced by early shadow play theater traditions and 1920s avant-garde film aesthetics. With its exquisitely detailed black paper cutouts set against hand-drawn backgrounds and arresting special effects, The Adventures of Prince Achmed continues, almost a century after its creation, to conjure up a reverie that’s both fantastical and representational, experimental and ancient.
The film’s visual power is the result of tremendous labor and experimentation. The Adventures of Prince Achmed, which currently holds the title of earliest known surviving animated feature-length film (it was released 11 years before Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), took three years to complete. During that time, the Berlin-born Reiniger commanded a small team of fellow animators and visual artists — including her husband, Carl Koch, on the camera, and Walter Ruttmann overseeing special effects — as they worked in a makeshift studio in Potsdam. First, Reiniger created a detailed storyboard and cut out the scenery and the individual elements of each figure from black cardboard and paper. She used wire hinges to connect the different sections of the figures. Wolfgang Zeller composed original music for the film, which dictated and shaped the characters’ movements during filming. The silhouette cutouts and transparent paper backgrounds were then placed on the different levels of glass plates that comprised Reiniger’s animation table. With the table lit from below and a camera placed overhead, Reiniger then moved and photographed the figures and backgrounds frame-by-frame. The different levels of glass plates gave the final product a sense of depth. For one seemingly straightforward scene of Prince Achmed flying through a starry sky on a magical horse, Reiniger recalled that, in addition to moving the figure of Achmed frame-by-frame, “This background…was worked out on three layers of transparent paper on different glass plates. The most numerous stars were cut out on the top one, fewer ones on the second and fewer still small ones on the last. All three were moved at a different speed, the top ones fastest, the second ones a little slower and the last ones very slowly, only a tiny bit every forth frame.”
Reiniger often utilized fairy tales, fables, literature, operas and folk tales as the source material for her films. In the case of The Adventures of Prince Achmed, she drew on various stories and characters from The Arabian Nights. Consequently, the film is a theatrical fairy tale in five acts that focuses on the exploits of an evil shapeshifting African magician and his nemesis, the Witch of the Flaming Mountain, as well as Achmed’s travels and his encounter with Aladdin and his famous lamp. There are also two beautiful heroines (Pari Banu and Princess Dinarsade), evil spirits, a malevolent snake and the aforementioned flying horse. Narratively speaking, the film is your standard story of personal quests and fantastical confrontations. In interpreting and visualizing this particular source material, the film certainly reflects the moment in which it was made and the Western imperialist attitudes toward the “exotic” Other. Many of the characters, such as the Witch and a Chinese emperor, are portrayed as grotesque and racist caricatures. Not surprisingly, depictions of gender will seem outdated to contemporary viewers. While the two female characters are nothing more than sexualized objects that are repeatedly captured, traded, carried away and bought and sold, the film romanticizes possessive male passion. For example, in one scene, an enamored Achmed chases a naked and frightened Pari Banu around a wooded lake, urging her to come away with him. He ultimately gets his wish when she faints, and is thus easier to carry to his horse (Spoiler Alert: Pari Banu quickly falls in love with him before being kidnapped by the Magician and, subsequently, being in need of saving by Achmed).
Nonetheless, the film is a cinematic achievement in terms of technique and form. The real pleasure of watching The Adventures of Prince Achmed is witnessing the fruits of the production process itself and not Reiniger’s interpretation of The Arabian Nights (although it’s nice to see the Witch repeatedly save both Aladdin and Achmed, who are each easily tricked by the Magician). The film is worth watching for its striking visual details — the small stars that make up Princess Dinarsade’s headdress, the moving reflections of bodies in a pool of water, the Magician’s bony fingers, the various latticed structures, and so on. A final battle between the Magician and the Witch is one of intense pleasure, as the two rapidly transform into and posture as various creatures. Effectively, in these moments, the film makes it impossible to ignore the work that went into creating these powerful visuals, while simultaneously presenting the output of that labor with delicate grace, impressive intricacy and fluid effortlessness.
Several interesting visual contradictions reveal themselves when looking at the silhouettes more closely. On the one hand, as flat profiles, the characters continually signal their constructed status. Yet, at the same time, their gestures and movements are incredibly realistic, as Reiniger often studied and emulated the physical behavior of humans and animals for her films. Similarly, the influence of pre-cinematic art forms, such as shadow play theater and puppetry, is evident in the way the figures are created, displayed and presented. However, in their expressivity amidst experimental special effects, the figures also signal Reiniger’s relationship to 1920s Berlin and the broader impulses toward avant-garde, experimental and Expressionist cinema at that time. These visual paradoxes between artificial/natural and ancient/modern inject The Adventures of Prince Achmed with a richness that is hard to deny.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed remains Reiniger’s most famous film, and tends to obscure her other work. Her career, devoted to silhouette animation, is impressive, and spanned multiple countries and both the silent and sound eras. Reiniger’s first film was in 1918, when she helped Paul Wegener bring to life wooden rats using stop-motion animation for The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Under the banner of the Institute for Cultural Research, a production venture dedicated to educational and experimental cinema in Berlin, Reiniger made several shorts, including The Flying Suitcase (1921) and Cinderella (1922), before devoting herself exclusively to The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Her filmography also boasts advertisements and opera films like Carmen (1933) and Papageno (1935), as well as shadow plays or silhouette sequences for live action films such as Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1938). Reiniger also provided illustrations for newspapers and books and wrote about the history of shadow theater and silhouette animation. Her films before and after The Adventures of Prince Achmed share a similar abundance of visual detail and delicate craftsmanship, and many were equally influenced by her interest in dance and music. Papageno, for example, exhibits an even smoother and more sophisticated approach to gesture, movement, silhouette and soundtrack. Due to her left-wing politics, Reiniger left Germany during World War II, continuing to work in England (for the GPO Film Unit among others), Italy and Canada. She made her final film in 1980.
As the artist who painstakingly moved her hand-cut figures frame-by-frame, Reiniger’s presence is impossible to ignore while watching her films. (You can even briefly glimpse her hand in The Adventures of Prince Achmed at the 45 and 53-minute marks.) It’s unfortunate that she is not better known. Not only did she pioneer the technique of silhouette animation and create one of the earliest feature-length animated films, but the experience of watching her work — whether in a theater with live music or online — is often awe-inspiring and transporting. However, Reiniger’s status as a female filmmaker and an animator in Europe rather than Hollywood — working with somber silhouettes rather than child-friendly cartoons — relegates her to a niche position, while Disney’s Snow White is continually celebrated and canonized. In this sense, Reiniger is not alone, and one of hundreds of female filmmakers who shaped early cinema on a global scale, only to be forgotten and marginalized by more contemporary filmographies, canons and curricula. I’m not saying this to paint Reiniger as a victim, but to encourage people to seek out all her available work now. The Adventures of Prince Achmed, at times playful, serious, sexy, predictable, problematic, beguiling and always technically impressive, is a good place to start.