January 9, 2015

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)
Grade: 62/100

Director: Lotte Reiniger
Stars: None

What it's about. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is regarded as the oldest surviving full-length animated feature. Director and lead artist Lotte Reiniger was a master at silhouette animation, black cardboard cut outs with moving parts connected by thread. These were painstakingly manipulated similar to the stop-motion clay figures popular in later decades. Reiniger's husband, Carl Koch, served as the equally patient photographer.

Approximately 96,000 separate shots were required to make the present hour-plus film. Reiniger apparently shared cutting duties with three assistants, Berthold Bartosch, Alexander Kardan, and Walter Ruttman. It took about three years to complete the film.

Reineger worked steadily as a filmmaker between 1919 and 1957, mostly making silhouette animation shorts. Her output continued, though less frequent, until her death at age 82 in 1981. Most of her films were shorts, and among the features, only The Adventures of Prince Achmed is widely seen. This is partly due to promotional efforts of Jean Renoir, and partly due to the British Film Institute, which saved a nitrate of the movie. All European nitrates were lost during World War II.

The story is a composite of various Arabian Nights fables. A Persian village is ruled by a powerful Caliph. He has a beautiful unwed daughter, Dinarsade, and a courageous grown son, Achmed. An evil magician offers a flying horse to the Caliph in return for Dinarsade. Achmed interferes with this arrangement, so the magician puts Achmed on the flying horse, which carries Achmed off to his adventures.

In the distant land of Wak Wak, Achmed meets Peri Banu, its lovely ruler. Their promising romance is foiled by the evil magician, who shows up, kidnaps Peri Banu, and sells her into slavery in China.

Fortunately for Achmed and Peri Banu, the magician has a sworn enemy, the witch of the volcanoes. She teams up with Achmed and his new friend, Aladdin, to defeat the magician. Another battle is required against the demons of Wak Wak to reunite our two couples, Achmed and Peri Banu, and Aladdin and Dinarsade.

How others will see it. Jean Renoir stated that Lotte Reiniger "was born with magic hands." Her artistic talents are undeniable, and it has to be said that this is a film unlike practically any other. That would explain why, today, it has a respectable 3K user votes at imdb.com, and a high user rating of 7.8 out of 10. Women under 30 give an 8.2, but in an interesting turnaround, 42% of women under 45 grade it only ONE out of 10.

It appears that older women disapprove of the movie because they are old enough to decode its messages. Women are desirable only if they are young, beautiful, passive, and royalty. Ugly men, such as the magician and the Chinese emperor's hunchbacked servant, are evil and scheme to subjugate women. However, handsome young men are worthy of such women, provided they are also wealthy and/or royalty, and repeatedly demonstrate their courage and wits.

How I felt about it. It does seem odd that the Caliph is ready to sell his daughter, either to the magician in return for a horse, or to the nouveau rich Aladdin. It is equally odd that the magician goes to such lengths and risks to acquire Dinarsade when Persia is likely stocked with many beautiful young women not fortunate enough to be the Caliph's daughter.

Ultimately, though, the Hero of a Thousand Faces story is merely an excuse for Reiniger to demonstrate her formidable skills of silhouette cutting and movement. These lack the nuances found in three-dimensional actors and sets, but the director's consistent vision shines through the technological limitations of her craft.

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