Earlier this week, we featured pioneering German animator Lotte Reiniger’s animated silhouette films, for which she adapted old European stories like “Cinderella,” “Thumbelina,” and “Hansel and Gretel” into a striking visual style — striking now, and even more striking in the 1920s — similar to traditional Indonesian shadow puppet theater. Her work draws plenty of material from folktales, but not just those from in and around her homeland (Germany). For her most ambitious work, for instance, Reiniger looked all the way to Arabia, adapting stories from no less venerable a source than One Thousand and One Nights. The 65-minute result, 1926’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed, stands as the earliest animated feature film. (See a nice clip above. The complete film lives on DVD/Blu Ray.)
“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,” Reiniger writes in her introduction to the picture. “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.” And so, in 1923, it fell to her and a select group of collaborators to make that film. They labored for the better part of three years, not just because of the requirements of shooting each and every frame by hand but because of the experimental nature of animation itself. “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.”
At that time, The Adventures of Prince Achmed did not, of course, even faintly resemble any feature yet made. “No theatre dared show it,” Reiniger writes, “for ‘it was not done.’ ” And so they did it themselves, screening the film just outside Berlin, which led to a show in Paris, then one in Berlin proper, by which point Prince Achmed and his magic horse were well on their way to a place in the animation history books. They nearly lost that place due to the 1945 battle of Berlin, when the film’s negative was lost amid the destruction, but the British Film Institute had made a negative of their own for a London screening, which eventually became the material for a restoration and revival. “The revival was done by the son of the banker who sponsored the film in 1923,” notes Reiniger. “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” — and he continues to win new fans today.
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Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.