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A beautifully stylized production that bridged classic fairy tales and the animated films on the horizon, The Adventures of Prince Achmed was hailed as the first animated feature when it was released in 1926. The film went on to become an international commercial success and its director, Lotte Reiniger, was called the inventor of the "silhouette film," a technique she used in numerous short and feature-length films, including many fairy-tale stories like The Little Chimney Sweep (1954), The Sleeping Beauty (1954), Hansel and Gretel (1955) and Jack and the Beanstalk (1955).
Her silhouette film technique involved elaborately detailed and jointed paper puppets, multiplane camera techniques and fascinating experiments on film stock with wax and sand. A Berlin-born avant-garde artist, who chose conventional fairy tales as her subject matter, Reiniger was only 23 when she made the film. Though she has been largely overlooked by film historians for her innovations in film form and animation, Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed has been acclaimed by contemporary viewers like the San Francisco Examiner's Wesley Morris, who called the film "a rapturous animated kaleidoscope."
The German production borrowed from the exoticism of the Middle East and The Arabian Nights to tell the fantastical story of a Prince Achmed and his series of adventures after a wicked African sorcerer tricks him into mounting a magical horse who spirits Achmed away to the enchanted island of Waq Waq. There the prince falls in love with the beautiful Princess Peri Banu, who lives on the island and whom he tells, "I am yours to command until the end of time." But once again, the evil sorcerer conspires to harm the prince, and manages to spirit the princess away to China, where he has arranged for her to marry the emperor. Achmed later joins forces with the sorcerer's archenemy, the Witch of the Fiery Mountains, and then with Aladdin and his magic lantern, to retrieve his princess love in a suitably fairy-tale denouement.
The animated figures in Achmed move against a changing backdrop of vivid color tinting, and ornate scenery, from the lake where Prince Achmed first finds Princess Peri Banu bathing, to the frightening flying goblins who spirit the sorcerer away to do his bidding, and look like ancestor's of the evil flying monkeys of The Wizard of Oz (1939) or elaborate woodcuts brought to life.
Director Jean Renoir called Reiniger's film "a masterpiece" and effusively proclaimed the director "born with magic hands." The film was recently restored to its original color tinting and given a new orchestral recording of a compelling 1926 score by Wolfgang Zeller.
The animation technique used by Reiniger in Achmed was eventually replaced by cel animation like that favored by Max Fleischer and Walt Disney, whose own Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) is often erroneously cited as the first animated feature.
Reiniger was unusual in making conventional fairy tales rather than the more experimental or political works favored by fellow members of the avant-garde. In fact, her animation assistant on Achmed, Walther Ruttmann (director of Berlin, the Symphony of a Great City, 1927), asked her why she did not make more political films. She replied, "I believe more in the truth of fairy tales than that found in the newspapers."
Director: Lotte Reiniger
Screenplay: Lotte Reiniger
Music: Wolfgang Zeller
by Felicia Feaster