Artefact 7 – The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)
“She was born with magic hands.” — Jean Renoir on Lotte Reiniger
Do you like Animation? Well, then there is absolutely no excuse to miss this magnificent masterpiece, the oldest surviving full-length animation film in the world.
For decades Walt Disney’s SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937) was considered the first full-length animation film, but when a colored nitrate positive on Agfa
film stock of Lotte Reininger’s THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED was found at the National Film and Television Archive (NFTVA) at the British Film Institute, the German Film Institute in Frankfurt took it up to restore this film. Now Lotte Reininger’s silhouette film is generally considered as the first full-length animation film, but also this position is arguable. (See the US distributor Milestone Film’s detailed booklet, p. 15 for more details on the debate)
PRINCE ACHMED is based on various tales from the Arabian Nights full of sorcery, magic flights, battles with demons, a volcano inhabited by a witch and a boat journey on a stormy sea, is remarkably not only due to its date (it premiered on 3rd September 1926 in Volksbuehne Berlin) and its countless technical innovations, but maybe most of all for the fact that it is still entertaining after all these years and that the filmmakers were able to arouse genuine emotions in the audience by using nothing else than cut-out images photographed before a bright light. Reininger’s ability to express sentiments by body movements of her shadow figures is something she might have picked up while working on a theatre production of the legendary theatre and film director Max Reinhardt. The Bohemian artist Berthold Bartusch was a master in creating effects out of simple resources.
His contribution to PRINCE ACHMED was described in Eric White’s Walking Shadows, written in 1931:
“For an effect of stars he will take a piece of cardboard, pin prick it and photograph it
moving slowly before the camera with a strong light behind. He will then take the
same piece of cardboard upside down, move it in a different direction and at a
different direction and at a different speed, and superimpose the second shot upon the
first. The result is a sky of stars moving slowly and (apparently) in different
directions and at different speeds, nothing could be simpler or more effective… For
years Bartosch has experimented with waves, making them out of superimposed
pieces of semitransparent tissue paper. These he moves with such consummate skill as
to convey the impression of the sea’s natural sway and surge. Moonlit water he
depicts by means of silver paper, in this case the waves overlap broadly, and the scene
has to be lit from the front (above).”
The contribution of Lotte Reiniger’s husband Carl Koch, a renowned historian who participated in PRINCE ACHMED as cameraman and technical advisor as well as the one of special effects artist Walter Ruttmann who later went on to make his brilliant BERLIN – SYMPHONY OF A CITY was invaluable in the making of this ageless classic.
Lotte Reiniger’s Introduction to
The Adventures of Prince Achmed
“For Centuries Prince Achmed on his magic horse had lived a comfortable life as a well-loved
fairy tale figure of the Arabian nights and was well contented with that. But one day he was thrown out of his peaceful existence by a film company which wanted to employ him and many other characters of the same stories for an animated film. For this purpose he had to be recreated like many other unfortunate fellows from tales of other literary regions. And this more thoroughly than usual with live actors, where it would be sufficient to find a protagonist who corresponds somewhat to the character which is represented in the story, give him the part and let him go on.
This had to be a film of animated silhouettes as the filmmaker who was obsessed with this idea — in this case myself — could not do anything else but make silhouette films. These were films whose actors were movable shadow figures, laid out flat on a glass plate, lit from below and filmed from above frame by frame, so that when projected on the screen it looked as if they were moving by their own free will.
Hitherto I had only made short films of a few minutes in length, of this kind, but Prince
Achmed’s adventures would occupy a whole hour, and so, many other items of the Arabian Nights rich treasure chest, which were especially suitable for fantastic animation had to be included. The shape of the prince himself had to be found, drawn, cut out, made movable, lit up, moved frame by frame and thus filmed.
This all happened in Berlin in the years from 1923 to 1926, for that was the time it did take to
finish the film. Why? For such a film demands that for each second, 24 different frames be taken. It may be left to algebraic abilities of the kind reader to figure out how many frames would be necessary for an opus of one hour in length.
This was not the only reason for the length of the period it required to make this film. At this
time animation was still walking in its infant shoes: there was no Mickey Mouse yet. We had to experiment and try out all sorts of inventions to make the story come alive. The more the shooting of Prince Achmed advanced the more ambitious he became. But he was lucky.
In the twenties, there lived in Berlin many artists who went their own ways and tried out new
methods of animating films and Prince Achmed succeeded in winning two of them for
collaboration on his film: Walter Ruttmann and Berthold Bartosch.
The young Berlin banker who sponsored the idea of making a full length animated film, a never heard of thing in this period, transformed the attic of the garage in the vegetable garden near his house in Potsdam and allowed us to experiment in it to our hearts’ content.
We, that was me, my husband Carl Koch, Walter Ruttmann, Bertold Bartosch, Alexander Kardan and Walter Turck. Koch was the producer and had control of the technical aspects, I cut out the figures and sets and animated them, assisted by Alexander Kardan and Walter Turck. Ruttmann invented and created wonderful movements for the magic events, fire, volcanoes, battles of good and evil spirits and Bartosch composed and cut out movement of waves for a sea storm, now a household word in animation but something quite new at this period.
Although the film was made in the days of the silent films, we collaborated from the very
beginning with the composer Wolfgang Zeller. He wrote the music for special sound effects like flute notes, glockenspiel and marches, and we tried to shoot these in rhythm of the music to obtain synchronization with the orchestra, which was to accompany the film later on.
When the film was finished no theatre dared show it for “it was not done”. So we made on our own a first performance in the theatre of the Volksbuhne in the north of Berlin. It turned out to be a big success. This was in May of 1926. In the following July Prince Achmed had his first public show in the theatre des Champs Elysee in Paris with equally great success, whereupon in September the Gloria Palast in Berlin gave him a start.
The negative was destroyed in the battle of Berlin, 1945. But the British Film Institute had made a second negative when the film was shown in London — and so — after a long period — the film being silent, was not to be shown anyhow — in 1972 a revival was planned. They attached new music was attached to it, this time by Freddy Phillips. The film had gained a certain amount of fame, being really the first full-length animated film in the history of the cinema.
To make it ‘Achmed-like’ the revival was done by, the son of the banker who sponsored the film in 1923. He had assisted in its creation as a small boy. So it was granted to old Prince Achmed to have a happy resurrection after almost half a century.”
The film is screened fairly often on Turner Classic Movies. English-market DVDs are available, NTSC R1 (from Image) and PAL R2 (from the BFI). Both versions of the DVD are identical. They feature both an English-subtitled version (the intertitles are in German) and an English voice-over.
To find out more, read the terrific 20 pages-article on Lotte Reininger and THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED by the US distributor Milestone Film.