Lotte Reiniger is not a household name like Walt Disney, but she was one of the most important animators in cinematic history. Known for her silhouette animation, Reiniger paved the path of the animated fairy tale and all others animators owe her a huge debt of gratitude. Her The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) was one of the first animated feature films, and, today is the oldest known surviving one.
Primarily known as an avant garde animator, Reiniger began The Adventures of Prince Achmed in 1923 and enlisted several of her artist friends to help her with the 3-year-long project. The story was taken from One Thousand and One Nights, with a focus on The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Told in five acts, the plot revolves around Prince Achmed battling both an evil African magician and the demons of Wak Wak Island for his true love Pari Banu. I have never read One Thousand and One Nights, so I was not familiar with the story. Like all fairy tales, a suspension of disbelief is required to watch the film. In this particular case, it doesn’t matter, because the story is just a guise to showcase some pretty spectacular images.
Using stop-time animation, Reiniger designed cardboard cutouts and used them with thin sheets of lead to create magical silhouetted images. This was a timely and painstaking way to design images (one of the many reasons that it took three years to complete the film), but the elaborate designs are a sight to behold. While Reiniger created the images, her husband Carl Koch captured them on film. As complex as the animation was, Koch’s ability to seamlessly capture his wife’s vision is remarkable. The entire story is an amalgamation of intricately designed images raveling and unraveling into other images.
Walter Ruttmann designed the incandescent backgrounds and Edmund Dulac used Islamic patterns to create the inter-title cards. The original musical score was composed by Wolfgang Zeller, who worked very closely with Reiniger to ensure that the music matched every frame of the movie. And, if that wasn’t enough, color tinting was used throughout the movie. In addition, Reiniger used a multi-plane animation stand to create depth of image—something that is often first attributed to Walt Disney, but it was actually a Reiniger invention.
While I would not suggest that The Adventures of Prince Achmed be shown to a roomful of six-year-olds on a Saturday afternoon, it is still a stunning piece of work. Like Disney’s Fantasia (1940), it is an artistic triumph that is probably best enjoyed by adults.