Directed by: Lotte Reiniger and Carl Koch (uncredited)
Released in: 1926
A phantasmagorical wonder, which was almost lost forever, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is an utter delight. Director Lotte Reiniger developed her own animation technique based on Wayang Indonesian puppets and spent years compiling enough footage to create a full-length film. She was a true pioneer for the animation genre, but unfortunately, her contributions have been almost forgotten.
Viewers may recognise the art style from 2010’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part one). In the memorable “three brothers sequence”, the characters are cut-out figures cast on a sepia background. While a lovely homage to Reiniger’s work, the sequence pales in comparison to her actual films. The intricacy in The Adventures of Prince Achmed is astounding. Although the characters and their surroundings are nothing more than black bits of paper, Reiniger delicately cut each piece to reveal real spectacle. Each fern frond, every latticed window is beautifully realised. Achmed’s curled shoes and Pari Banu’s dress are carefully cut out. Each scene is set on a different coloured background. From the deep yellow of the Caliph’s city to the blue of Pari Banu’s pool and the green of furthest China; each scene is vibrant. This is probably not what people expect from a silent film emerging from the black and white era. You might expect a film of this age to feature very stilted character movements. Instead, excepting only the crowd scenes, the characters’ actions are soft. Achmed gently cups Pari Banu’s chin, Aladdin and Dinarsade softly kiss, and the sorcerer seamlessly shapeshifts.
If this were just an aesthetic marvel, this would still be a feat to be reckoned with, but this is an emotional story, tightly told. Based on stories from One Thousand and One Nights, the film introduces familiar characters and situations. The eponymous Prince attempts to save his sister from a marriage to the wicked sorcerer. The sorcerer pushes Prince Achmed onto his flying horse, and Achmed disappears beyond the crowd, with no way to know how he can get back. But, he’s a brave young man and has always desired adventure. Along the way, he finds love, defeats evil and discovers secrets. The film is a true fairy-tale, told in a fantastical way.
Accompanying our hero is a resounding score. Unlike many of the other scores accompanying silent cinema, The Adventure of Prince Achmed ’s is operatic; it is balletic. It sweeps you up like Walt Disney’s Fantasia did almost twenty years later. The music swells, and as it does, it confirms your fixation on these characters’ trials and tribulations.
While it’s inevitable that movies will be lost to the annals of history and older films don’t seem to be as compelling as modern animated movies, The Adventures of Prince Achmed isn’t one to sleep on. The magic within is something that even Disney sometimes struggles to reach.