The Adventures of Prince Achmed – The first full-length animated film

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed) is a mesmerizing, but rarely-seen, 1926 animated feature film by the amazing female German animator Lotte Reiniger.

Why is this film so important?

  • Reiniger made the entire film frame-by-frame with elaborate cardboard cutouts
  • It is the oldest surviving feature-length animated film and predates Disney
  • Her ability to use cardboard silhouette marionettes to not only tell a story but evoke emotion will blow your mind

The first time I saw, or even heard of The Adventures of Prince Achmed, I was actually at a concert. My comedian friend, Adam Wade, and I went to go see indie rock heroine Mary Timony play at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, NJ. Before Timony came out on stage, this drunk girl stole Adam’s glasses and totally pissed him off. While Adam was trying to recover his glasses, I noticed a Macintosh iBook hooked into a projector (the big glowing white Apple logo is hard to miss). During Timony’s performance, this elaborate and colorful silhouette animation played in the background. At first I thought Timony had made the movie using an animation application like Adobe Flash, but luckily I was able to chat briefly with her after the show and she politely set me straight. Timony was just using her iBook’s DVD player to play the movie The Adventures of Prince Achmed. I think she was a little annoyed I was asking about the background projection and not her music, but I bought 3 of her CDs at the show and I’m actually a big fan of hers.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed
The Adventures of Prince Achmed: The first full-length animated film

The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a silent film. But the latest DVD re-release features the original Wolfgang Zeller musical score that accompanied the film in its initial 1926 theatrical run.

Revolutionary Animation Technique

One of the things that makes this film so remarkable, is the animation technique used by Reiniger. Unlike typical cartoons that used a pencil on paper flip book approach, Reiniger’s film features a silhouette animation technique she invented which involves the manipulation of cardboard cutouts and thin sheets of lead under a camera.


When asked how exactly she animated her film by the British magazine Sight & Sound in 1936, Reiniger had this to say:

“…The technique of this type of film is very simple. As with cartoon drawings, the silhouette films are photographed movement by movement. But instead of using drawings, silhouette marionettes are used. These marionettes are cut out of black cardboard and thin lead, every limb being cut separately and joined with wire hinges. A study of natural movement is very important, so that the little figures appear to move just as men and women and animals do. But this is not a technical problem. The backgrounds for the characters are cut out with scissors as well, and designed to give a unified style to the whole picture. They are cut from layers of transparent paper.” ~ Lotte Reiniger, Sight & Sound (1936)

If you are involved in the animation or film industry, then Lotte’s ability to use silhouette marionettes to not only tell a story but evoke emotion will blow your mind. Every moment was created frame by frame, composed of detailed paper cutouts and posed by hand. It took her 3 years to make the films. Even when judged against today’s modern filmmaking expectations, “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” is a visually stunning achievement.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed

Reiniger’s rare talent and her love for silhouette art developed at a very early age. As a child Reiniger used to cut out elaborate silhouettes for friends and family members as gifts.

“I could cut silhouettes almost as soon as I could manage to hold a pair of scissors. I could paint, too, and read, and recite; but these things did not surprise anyone very much. But everybody was astonished about the scissor cuts, which seemed a more unusual accomplishment. The silhouettes were very much praised, and I cut out silhouettes for all the birthdays in the family. Did anyone warn me as to where this path would lead? Not in the least; I was encouraged to continue.” ~ Lotte Reiniger, Sight & Sound (1936)

NERD NOTE No original German nitrate prints of the film are known to still exist. While the original film featured color tinting, prints available just prior to the restoration had all been in black and white. Working from surviving nitrate prints, German and British archivists have restored the film including adding back the original tinted backgrounds of delicate pastels

 

The color-tinted film uses a diverse cast of characters, animals and elaborate backgrounds that make an otherwise limited monochromatic experience come alive. This may be hard to believe, but Reiniger’s cutouts clearly display such details as hair, lace, leaves and feathers. Her attention to detail is truly remarkable

Story & Plot

Based on the classic collection of stories “Arabian Nights,” the film tells the story of an evil African sorcerer who tricks a young prince named Achmed into riding a wild magical flying horse which he does not know how to control. The evil sorcerer assumes that the Prince will eventually get thrown from the flying horse and plunge to his death.

However, Prince Achmed manages to tame the flying horse and instead gets whisked away into a series of adventures that include encounters with Aladdin, the Witch of the Fiery Mountains, the beautiful Princess Pari Banu and of course a showdown with the evil African sorcerer.

Here are a few scenes of note to look for while you watch the film:

  • During the course of his adventures, Prince Achmed eventually finds himself in a harem of girls. He excitedly starts kissing them all – but with each kiss, the girls get more and more jealous of each other. Their jealousy soon leads to violence as they start fist-fighting with each other in an attempt to claim the handsome Prince for themselves.
  • The Adventures of Prince Achmed may be credited with utilizing the first “morph” technique on film. In one of the film’s most climactic scenes, the evil sorcerer and friendly Fire Witch engage in a combination aerial and aquatic battle which they continuously morph into a variety of dueling animals.
  • My favorite scene of the film is when the Princess Pari Banu and her maidens put on feathered garments that allow them to fly to a stream to bathe. The graceful movements employed in this scene is like watching a beautiful ballet. But the most impressive part of this scene, is the shimmering and realistic silhouette ripples on the surface of the water. This scene had me in awe. It’s hard to believe that this film was made almost 100 years ago without the help of a computer. The movement is so detailed and realistic that it had me in complete disbelief. You have to see it to believe it.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Not only is The Adventures of Prince Achmed the oldest surviving animated movie and a piece of film history (two earlier films were made in Argentina by Quirino Cristiani, but there are no surviving copies), but it’s a beautifully innovative and enchanting masterpiece. The film is so rich with wild imagination, you will forget you’re watching paper cutouts and be amazed at how much expression Lotte Reiniger can evoke with her intricate hand-cut silhouettes. Someday this film will get the recognition it richly deserves.

NERD NOTE Lotte Reiniger was born in Berlin-Charlottenburg, German Empire, on June 2, 1899. As a child, she was fascinated with the Chinese art of silhouette puppetry, even building her own puppet theater so she could put on shows for her family and friends.