The Adventures of Prince Achmed

Poster for The Adventures of Prince Achmed

Autumn 2013 Special Presentations series

Wednesday, October 23, 2013 at 8:00pm

Acadia Cinema's Al Whittle Theatre
450 Main Street, Wolfville, NS

Directed by Lotte Reiniger

Screenplay by Lotte Reiniger


Rated G · 1h 21m

The Adventures of Prince Ahmed(Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed )

The Fundy Film Society is very pleased to be able to bring to the Big Screen and the Al Whittle Theatre  a very special evening: a unique performance combining the oldest surviving animated feature-length film Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Ahmed) (1926) by German director and animator, Lotte Reininger (1899–1981) with a brand new score composed and performed live by Small World Project, the award-winning Montréal-based trio of Sébastien Dufour, Patrick Graham and Frédéric Samson. Winner of the 2011 Opus Prize for the Concert of the Year in the Jazz and World Music category and winner of the CBC Galaxie Rising Star award, the versatile Small World Project constantly amazes with its arsenal of small stringed instruments (ukulele, charango, banjo-uke, strumstick, etc.), mini percussion instruments and a double bass.

Based on episodes of the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (or Arabian Nights), Lotte Reiniger’s film uses the silhouette animation technique which she invented—silhouette figures photographed in stop-motion against voluptuous backgrounds to create a film of technical complexity and haunting beauty. A gifted designer as well as a spellbinding storyteller, Reiniger creates a cohesive visual universe through which Prince Achmed rides on his magical horse, wooing a fair princess and battling a host of demons.

The silhouettes were cutouts made from cardboard and thin sheets of lead manipulated under a camera’s lens to create an Arabian Nights world of delicate, filigree backgrounds and intricately jointed figures. Similar to Wayang shadow puppets (from Java or Bali), hers were animated frame by frame, not manipulated in live action. Wolfgang Zeller composed the original accompanying score. The original prints featured color tinting.

Lotte Reiniger was born in 1899 in Berlin, Germany, and was among the first women to achieve a successful career in animation and film direction. In her youth, Reiniger was captivated by silhouette puppetry and adapted the laborious technique for use in her full-length films. This, her most notable film, is one of nearly seventy films she made throughout her career. Reiniger died in 1981 at age 82.

The film and the filmmaker by Felicia Feaster

A beautifully stylized production that bridged classic fairy tales and the animated films on the horizon, The Adventures of Prince Achmed become an international commercial success and Reiniger, called the inventor of the “silhouette film,” used it in numerous short and feature-length films, including many fairy-tale stories like The Little Chimney Sweep (1954), The Sleeping Beauty (1954), Hansel and Gretel (1955) and Jack and the Beanstalk (1955).

Her silhouette film technique involved elaborately detailed and jointed paper puppets, multiplane camera techniques and fascinating experiments on film stock with wax and sand. The Berlin-born avant-garde artist, who chose conventional fairy tales as her subject matter, Reiniger was only 23 when she made the film. Though she has been largely overlooked by film historians for her innovations in film form and animation, Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed has been acclaimed by contemporary viewers like the San Francisco Examiner‘s Wesley Morris, who called the film “a rapturous animated kaleidoscope.”

The German production borrowed from the exoticism of the Middle East and The Arabian Nights to tell the fantastical story of a Prince Achmed and his series of adventures after a wicked African sorcerer tricks him into mounting a magical horse who spirits Achmed away to the enchanted island of Waq Waq. There the prince falls in love with the beautiful Princess Peri Banu, who lives on the island and whom he tells, “I am yours to command until the end of time.” But once again, the evil sorcerer conspires to harm the prince, and manages to spirit the princess away to China, where he has arranged for her to marry the emperor. Achmed later joins forces with the sorcerer’s archenemy, the Witch of the Fiery Mountains, and then with Aladdin and his magic lantern, to retrieve his princess love in a suitably fairy-tale denouement.

The animated figures in Achmed move against a changing backdrop of vivid color tinting, and ornate scenery, from the lake where Prince Achmed first finds Princess Peri Banu bathing, to the frightening flying goblins who spirit the sorcerer away to do his bidding, and look like ancestor’s of the evil flying monkeys of The Wizard of Oz (1939) or elaborate woodcuts brought to life.

Director Jean Renoir called Reiniger’s film “a masterpiece” and effusively proclaimed the director “born with magic hands.” The film was recently restored to its original color tinting and given a new orchestral recording of a compelling 1926 score by Wolfgang Zeller.

The animation technique used by Reiniger in Achmed was eventually replaced by cel animation like that favored by Max Fleischer and Walt Disney, whose own Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) is often erroneously cited as the first animated feature.

Reiniger was unusual in making conventional fairy tales rather than the more experimental or political works favored by fellow members of the avant-garde. In fact, her animation assistant on Achmed, Walther Ruttmann, director of Berlin, the Symphony of a Great City, 1927 [which Fundy Film screened (2008) in cooperation with Acadia School of Music’s “Shattering the Silence”] asked her why she did not make more political films. She replied, “I believe more in the truth of fairy tales than that found in the newspapers.”

A story of the première screening and more about Lotte Reniger

On the morning of Sunday May 2, 1926, a frantic Carl Koch scoured the streets of Berlin looking for a replacement projector lens. Back at the Volksbuehne theatre, he had left behind house conductor Wolfgang Zeller and his orchestra, a cluster of literati invited by budding playwright Bertolt Brecht, and a standing-room-only crowd of spectators trying to pass off coat-check stubs as seat tickets. The filmmaking team, which included special effects wizards Walther Ruttmann and Berthold Bartosch, technical assistants Alexander Kardan and Walther Türck, and the 27-year-old director Lotte Reiniger, nervously awaited Koch’s return. As it was Sunday, all the photography shops were closed. So it was that Koch, cameraman, producer, and Reiniger’s husband, ended up at Ufa studios, where, serendipitously, someone with a key happened to pass by. Projector lens in hand, Koch took a cab back to the theatre, where the first screening of The Adventures of Prince Achmed, three years in the making, could finally begin.

Surprisingly, the idea to make a feature-length animated film had not come from the filmmakers themselves. Because of spiraling inflation in the Weimar Republic, money was best spent as quickly as possible. Banker Louis Hagen, who had invested in a stash of film stock, was looking to shelter more of his rapidly devaluing cash. During a visit to the Institute for Culture Research, which sponsored Reiniger’s first animated films, Hagen saw a young woman cutting out silhouettes, and he asked her if a feature-length silhouette film was possible. She said it was.

Since the end of the first World War, German cinema had regained its reputation for quality by producing prestigious films by directors like F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch. Yet, another strand of cinema, with roots in the art world, was emerging simultaneously. Before the war, avant-garde artists had rejected the constrictions of art institutions. Post-war Germany nurtured this new crop of artists who embraced abstract art, folk art and the value of working outside the academy. Cinema, with its lack of antecedents, was attractive to these many forward-thinking artists, and they began to explore the canvas of the film strip as an extension of painting. Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter animated their abstract scroll paintings in the early 1920s. Architectural student and painter Walther Ruttmann produced his Lichtspiel Opus films, in which shapes and colors morphed in time to live, original musical scores.

Lotte Reiniger embodied the credo of the new age: a self-taught artist skilled in the ancient folk art of shadow plays, who was excited by the prospect of cinema. Born June 2, 1899, she mastered silhouettes as a child, entertaining the family with Shakespeare shadow plays in the living room. “I could cut out silhouettes almost as soon as I could manage to hold a pair of scissors,” she wrote in 1936. “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.”

She convinced her parents to send her to Max Reinhardt’s drama school, where, if she wasn’t performing, she could be found crafting silhouettes of the actors’ performances, which would cast shadows backstage. Paul Wegener (director of both a 1915 and a 1920 version of Der Golem), noticed her unusual talent, and invited the 19-year-old to make titles for his film The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1918). She learned about animation by assisting with the stop-motion filming of the wooden rats that were used in place of the original cast of unruly live guinea pigs. On the set of Die Galeerensträfling (The Gallery Slave, 1919), in which Reiniger played a small part, Wegener introduced her to some artists who were starting a trick film studio, “Help me get rid of this mad silhouette girl,” he joked to Carl Koch and Berthold Bartosch, who would go on to help her make six short silhouette films at the Institute for Culture Research.

When Hagen first approached her about a feature-length animated film, she was eager but cautious, recognizing that animation had thus far been limited to ten minute comedies. She chose to adapt stories from the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, fantastical tales of the Orient that had re-captivated Europe since the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. ”Those were the days,” Reiniger recalled years later, “with each new film we could make new discoveries…The whole field was virgin soil and we had all the joys of explorers in an unknown country.” Hagen installed them above his garage in Potsdam, where they spent the next three years photographing 250,000 individual images on a multi-plane camera designed specifically for the film.

One frame at a time, Reiniger would adjust the moving parts of her silhouette puppets. The multi-plane camera, operated by Carl Koch, sat atop two layers of glass tables, with a strong backlight at the bottom to give the images depth. One frame at a time, Reiniger would adjust the moving parts of her elaborate silhouette puppets, cut from black cardboard and joined by wire hinges. She studied human and animal movements to make her characters as expressive as possible. The background artists experimented with effects of their own: Bartosch created ocean waves and starlit skies with sand, soap and transparent cutouts; and Ruttmann used wax to conjure the flying horse and other magical transformations. As the camera was stationary, larger silhouettes and scaled backgrounds also had to be built for medium shots or close-ups. A total of 96,000 frames were culled from the filming, then edited together.

By the time Prince Achmed premièred that day in May, German cinema luminaries like Lubistch and Murnau had already answered Hollywood’s siren call. The avant-garde, seduced by the French Dadaists and Surrealists, were flocking to Paris. Reiniger stayed in Berlin, working with Koch as her producer on short silhouette films. After the rise of the National Socialists in 1933, Reiniger and Koch tried unsuccessfully to get permanent visas elsewhere in Europe. Reiniger took jobs in London, where she worked for the famed GPO (General Post Office) film unit. In Paris, she created a fantasy sequence for G.W. Pabst’s Don Quichotte (1933), and made a shadow play for Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1938). Eventually they were evacuated back to Berlin, where they managed to survive the war. The original negative of Prince Achmed, however, did not. It was destroyed in the Battle of Berlin in 1945. When Reiniger and Koch were finally granted asylum by England in 1949, they left behind all her other films as well.

For her entire career, Reiniger never strayed from silhouettes. Mozart’s The Magic Flute, fables by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, all became animated silhouettes under Reiniger’s quick scissors. She wrote books on shadow plays, illustrated an edition of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, directed shadow play sequences for the ballet, and taught animation. In 1980 she made her last film, in Germany, where she had returned the year before. She died one year later, at the age of 82. The Adventures of Prince Achmed comes to us today through a negative saved in England, as does a piece of Reiniger herself. In single frames, one 45 minutes into the film and the other 53 minutes in, you can catch a glimpse of the shadow of Reiniger’s sure hands.