The First Animated Feature Film: The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger (1926)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Ground­break­ing Sil­hou­ette Ani­ma­tions of Lotte Reiniger: Cin­derel­la, Hansel and Gre­tel, and More

Sita Sings the Blues Now on YouTube

Ear­ly Japan­ese Ani­ma­tions: The Ori­gins of Ani­me (1917–1931)

4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More

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.

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Comments (4)
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  • Chris says:

    I love this movie. I also enjoy nar­rat­ing the movie for my kid. Its a good time had by all.

  • christine says:

    I am teach­ing this film at Ange­lo State Uni­ver­si­ty in our team taught Ger­man and Russ­ian Film in the 1920s class.

  • Ingrid says:

    Love Lotte Reiniger’s art!
    Here’s a beau­ti­ful Nivea ad she did in 1922, titled “The secret of the Mar­quise”:

    How­ev­er, I should note that Reiniger actu­al­ly was­n’t the first direc­tor to make an ani­mat­ed fea­ture film (maybe the first woman, though), the ital­ian ‑Argen­tine-based- Quiri­no Cris­tiani did ( In 1917 he pre­miered “El após­tol” in Buenos Aires, a polit­i­cal satire. Curi­ous­ly, he used the same type of ani­ma­tion as Reiniger did almost a decade lat­er for “The Adven­tures of Prince Achmed”: cut out fig­ures. Lat­er, in 1931, he released the first ani­mat­ed fea­ture film with sound, called “Peludópo­lis”, also a polit­i­cal satire. Sad­ly, both films are con­sid­ered lost as of now.

    Cris­tiani is large­ly for­got­ten both in Argenti­na and in the cin­e­ma world in gen­er­al, even film his­to­ry books rarely men­tion him. A few years ago, though, there was a doc­u­men­tary made about him, “Quiri­no Cris­tiani: The mys­tery of the first ani­mat­ed movies”. It’s avail­able on DVD.

  • Michel says:

    “Curi­ous­ly, he used the same type of ani­ma­tion as Reiniger did (…): cut out fig­ures.”

    Did you see the doc­u­men­tary? Does it tell more about the ani­mat­ing process of “El após­tol”. In the Ger­man wikipedia page about this movie it is said, that it con­sist­ed of 58.000 draw­ings, each rep­re­sent­ed in a film frame.

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