On 2 June, Google’s homepage featured a short silhouettism film in celebration of what would’ve been Lotte (Charlotte) Reiniger’s 117th birthday, so I knew I had to spotlight her most famous film as soon as possible. The Adventures of Prince Achmed was already on my list of important films with landmark anniversaries in 2016 which I’d planned to blog about.
Other films I plan to blog about this year include Modern Times, City Lights, a number of Mary Pickford films, and (during October) Dracula, The Phantom Carriage, Faust, and Der Müde Tod. I’m also planning series on the 90th anniversary of Greta Garbo coming to the U.S., the 95th anniversary of the scandal which ruined poor, sweet Roscoe Arbuckle’s career, the 90th anniversary of Rudy Valentino’s death, and the 70th anniversary of The Song of the South. Yes, I’m old enough to have seen the lattermost film during its last theatrical re-release in the U.S., before Disney decided to pretend it doesn’t exist.
Look at these stills! Aren’t they just gorgeous? The oldest surviving animated feature was directed, illustrated, and animated by Lotte Reiniger. It was so complicated, the entire process took three years. Silhouettism was inspired by Chinese silhouette puppetry, something Frau Reiniger loved so much she created her very own silhouette puppet theatre to entertain friends and family as a child. She was also deeply inspired by the pioneering special effects of the legendary Georges Méliès, and the fantasy stories of actor/director Paul Wegener (best-known for The Golem).
Happily, Frau Reiniger and her husband, Carl Koch, were very anti-Nazi, and got the hell out of Germany in 1933. Since no country would give them permanent visas, they spent the next 11 years bouncing around from country to country and staying as long as their visas would permit.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed) is based on several stories from One Thousand and One Nights, esp. The Blue Fairy Book version of “The Story of Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Paribanou.” Since I’ve always seen it during the witching hour (TCM’s Silent Sunday Night), it has even more of a magical, otherworldly feeling.
This isn’t the type of film which slowly builds and has some kind of three-act structure. It launches us right into the thick of the action and a wonderful series of adventures. There’s an evil sorcerer, a flying horse, a harem, a kidnapping, a beautiful princess, legendary hero Aladdin, a friendly Fire Witch, a Chinese Emperor, magical battles, and lots and lots of magical objects. Stories with episodic structure are highly underrated, and can be even better than stories with a specific plot structure. Every single frame is amazingly beautiful and detailed, with the action coming alive and pulling us right into the story. And it was all done sans CGI or other modern, high-tech help.
No original German nitrate prints are known to still exist, and for many years, the only available prints were black and white. From 1998–99, the film was restored, and the original colour tinting was restored. The always-wonderful Milestone has released the film on DVD, and TCM shows it fairly frequently. It’s such a sweet, charming, moving, beautiful, magical, lovely fairytale. If you love early animated films, fairytales, folklore, German silent film, and One Thousand and One Nights, you’ll probably really enjoy this sweet, magical treasure.
If you understand German, you’ll also love how the intertitles are presented in the original German (with beautiful calligraphy reminiscent of Arabic calligraphy!), with an English translation below. Some foreign silents don’t handle translated intertitles well (e.g., hard to read, poor font or typeface choice, no original to compare against), but this aspect was handled really well with the restoration. I always feel so proud of myself when I realise I can understand a German (or French or Russian) intertitle without the translation.