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Hello everyone, and welcome to a new First Thoughts series! I’ve been thinking about doing another one of these for a while, to help bring some attention to the many neglected animated classics out there that I – and maybe you – haven’t yet discovered. Before we get started, a few honourable mentions are in order, because there’s no way I can cover the entire breadth of the global animated canon in one series. Here are a few of the other works I considered including, most of which have been left out due to either being difficult to find or having too many bad reviews (they may provide material for another series down the line). The excluded parties are: Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941), Invention for Destruction (1958), Gay Purr-ee (1962), Charlotte’s Web (1973), American Pop (1981), Barefoot Gen (1983), The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985), The Brave Little Toaster (1987), The Thief and the Cobbler (1993), South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999), Millennium Actress (2001), 5 Centimetres per Second (2007), Rango (2011), Ernest & Celestine (2012) and Anomalisa (2015).
Now, it’s time to begin this series with our first entry, a 94-year-old classic of Weimar cinema: The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). With the exception of Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), this will be the oldest thing I’ve ever reviewed here, as this ancient film is nine years older than even Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Older than the Depression, antibiotics and the Queen of England, only one living member of my family was alive when it was released! That said, it was not the first animated film ever made, as is sometimes claimed.
A pioneering Italian-Argentinian director called Quirino Cristiani actually created a couple of earlier films about the political situation in his country, using the same type of cutout animation as Reiniger later would. The first was El Apóstol (1917), which he followed with Sin dejar rastros (1918) a year later, but these were only shown in Argentina and so were not widely known in the rest of the world. Incidentally, Cristiani also created the first animated film with sound in 1931 – Peludópolis – but sadly, all of these precious works were lost in a series of fires over the years, a common hazard in the days of flammable nitrate film stock, so we can only rely on reviews of the time for details.
According to some sources, Cristiani’s collaborator Andrés Ducaud also apparently created a few early features of his own after completing his work with Cristiani, but these too are lost to time, so Achmed is thought to be the oldest animated film to have survived into the modern day. Since these accolades are often wrongly attributed to Snow White (which was only the first cel-animated feature), it’s important to get the facts straight.
One other thing that makes Achmed stand out besides its age is its director, a woman in her mid-twenties named Lotte Reiniger. Female directors were rather more common in the silent era than they are today, which can come as a surprise to modern viewers used to Hollywood’s sexism, but Reiniger was still lucky to get this opportunity given her limited experience up to that point. After getting her start working backstage and providing snippets of animation for other directors’ films (such as Paul Wegener), Reiniger was given the opportunity to direct a full-length animated feature in 1923 by banker Louis Hagen, who had bought up some raw film stock as an investment against the crippling inflation Germany was suffering at the time, and needed to do something with it. Yes, The Adventures of Prince Achmed was a commission!
Hagen put up Reiniger and her team in the attic of his garage in Potsdam, Berlin, which quickly became a cramped, makeshift studio. Nobody in the west had ever attempted a film like this before, and the painstaking process of producing twenty-four frames of animation for every second of screen time kept them busy until early 1926. Reiniger’s husband and collaborator, Carl Koch, served as producer and also handled the technical aspects (he was film’s main cameraman), while the animation staff included avant-garde artists Walter Ruttman and Berthold Bartosch, who handled the special effects, and Alexander Kardan and Walter Türck, who worked alongside Reiniger as key animators. It’s worth mentioning here that Reiniger was not only the creator of one of the first animated films, but was also the first to use an early version of the multiplane camera, several years before the likes of Ub Iwerks and William Garity with their perfected versions. Quite the pioneer!
Like most films of the silent era, Achmed would be accompanied in theatres by live music, so the team were joined throughout the endeavour by composer Wolfgang Zeller. It was unusual at the time for the composer to be a paid member of the production from start to finish (many films didn’t even have dedicated “scores”, with orchestras simply improvising music over each screening), but Zeller’s continuous involvement here was crucial. Reiniger would provide photograms for the orchestras in the theatres to follow in order to keep time, so the “soundtrack” needed to be properly synchronised with what was on screen. While early restorations of the film in the 1970s replaced Zeller’s score, it was reinstated in the 1999 one as a proper soundtrack, so modern audiences can now view the film in a form as close to its original presentation as possible.
Just as Walt Disney would do many times in the following decades, Lotte Reiniger turned to the world of fairy tales to find a suitable story. Being a fan of Chinese shadow puppetry and paper-cutting, she looked to the east for inspiration and settled on the famous collection of Middle Eastern tales, One Thousand and One Nights, best known from the translation by Antoine Galland. Admittedly, the specific tales chosen for the film – such as Aladdin and The Story of Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Perī-Bānū – are not believed to be from the original Arabic versions of The Nights, but it was still an interesting choice for a German director of the time.
So, how is Achmed holding up after all these years? I always argue in my reviews in favour of the artistry of hand-drawn animated films, and the same is true of stop-motion; the work of real human hands usually ages far better than that driven by technology, and Achmed still looks fantastic even after the better part of a century. The sheer intricacy of the hand-cut silhouettes makes them beautiful enough on their own, but with the added magic of animation, it becomes a fascinating ballet of colour and character. If you seek this out, you might be surprised by just how deeply invested you become in these tiny cardboard figures and their adventures, with the nuances in Reiniger’s direction of her “actors” giving them a great deal of personality.
Mind you, I do have to point out that the two female characters feel as flat as they look, which is a little disappointing given that they’re the work of a female director. Dinarsade and Pari Banu are both love interests and nothing more, with our hero Achmed even kidnapping the latter from her home, before having the audacity to get upset when she’s then kidnapped away from him! While I’m nit-picking, I should also note that there’s some… questionable stereotyping of the Chinese and African characters, but then, what else can you expect from 1926?
Those issues aside, the storytelling is top-notch, made even more dramatic by the wonderfully thunderous Zeller score. Every subplot is linked together through Achmed’s connection to the Sorcerer, whose machinations are eventually foiled thanks to the help of my favourite character, the Witch of the Flaming Mountain – I love to imagine who might have voiced her in a modern take on the film, she’s so hammy.
Achmed was a cinematic landmark which many future creations would draw inspiration from, even long after Reiniger herself had passed away; the most obvious parallel is with Disney’s Aladdin (1992), in which a character who here plays only a supporting role became the protagonist of his own story. Outside of that, there are also works like The Thief and the Cobbler (1993) and The Sword in the Stone (1963), the latter of which calls back to the wizard’s duel featured in the climax of Achmed, and while cutout animation remains a fairly niche artform, the wider stop-motion movement it’s a part of has blossomed thanks to the work of studios like Aardman and Laika. Even now, this classic film’s influence continues to be felt, with a 2016 episode of Steven Universe called The Answer being a recent reference to Reiniger’s art style.
Back in 1926, Achmed initially struggled to find a distributor, with some thinking the film looked “unfinished”, so Reiniger and company got around this by simply showing it themselves at Berlin’s Volksbühne (“People’s theatre”) in May of that year. It proved a big enough hit there to secure a run at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in July, and by September it had begun a full run at the Gloria Palast in Berlin. The rest, as they say, is history; critics and audiences largely adored it, and despite being somewhat forgotten during the middle of the century, by the 1970s it had cemented a firm place for itself in animated history. Surprisingly, it ended up being the only feature-length animated film Reiniger would ever make, as she returned to the short works she preferred for the rest of her career (her last would come out only a year before her death in 1981).
We modern viewers are very lucky to be able to watch this today, as Achmed almost suffered the same fate as poor Cristiani’s works when the original negative was destroyed in the Battle of Berlin in 1945. Luckily, the British Film Institute (BFI) had made a second copy after the film’s showing in London, and in 1972 this was restored (with a new score by Freddie Phillips) by Louis Hagan, the son of the very same banker who funded the film’s creation back in the twenties. Further restoration work followed in 1999, but not without great effort; the surviving prints were in black-and-white, so a team of British and German archivists had to use the Desmet method to restore the film’s colour.
Now, thanks to the BFI, the film is readily available for purchase and can be enjoyed by generations of animation lovers for years to come. At just over an hour in length, I’d definitely recommend checking this out; even if silent films aren’t normally your thing, you won’t be bored by this one, and it’s such an important milestone in animation history that it simply shouldn’t be missed. You’ll notice all kinds of little details that are referenced in many later works, which only reminds you how old and influential this really was. It’s also worth seeing for its own merits alone, as it’s an inspired piece of artwork which took the better part of three years to put together, serving as the magnum opus of Reiniger’s career and, arguably, of the entire pre-Snow White period of animation. Only the best silent films can continue to entertain audiences in such a timeless manner as this.
Thank you so much for reading; I hope you’ve enjoyed this voyage into the past. It always gives me a weird chill to watch something so old, knowing all the people and events it predates and imaging all the departed generations before me who enjoyed it first. (Morbid, I know). The next instalment of this series will be looking at the 1954 British classic, Animal Farm, but before that we should be getting to How to Train Your Dragon (there may also be a book review first, as difficult circumstances have delayed my prep). Until next time, take care and staaay animated!
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0015532/mediaindex?ref_=tt_pv_mi_sm – credit for poster and images
https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/2018/04/197127/women-silent-era-hollywood-prominent-directors-writers – an article on female directors of the silent era
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiplane_camera – details on the multiplane camera
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lotte_Reiniger – Lotte Reiniger’s wiki page
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Adventures_of_Prince_Achmed – Wiki page
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0015532/ – IMDB profile and credit for images