Though Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is usually cited as the first full-length animated feature, it is actually The Adventures of Prince Achmed which has a better case to make (excepting some possibly apocryphal Argentinian projects which have been lost). Yet one can see why it has been overlooked in the history books. Aside from the fact that it flopped on its premiere and took fifty years to recoup its cost, Prince Achmed was not a Disney film - in fact it was not even American (and was silent to boot!). The German feature (at sixty-seven minutes, it's longer than Dumbo) was also the brainchild of a woman, Lotte Reiniger, who worked into her eighties producing films in her own unique style - which brings us to the final point. The Adventures of Prince Achmed was not created using conventional cel animation but was instead meticulously assembled through the use of shadow puppets - the entire film takes place in intricate, astonishingly crafted silhouettes.
At first, I wasn't sure what I would think of the movie - an entire film in which we didn't see the characters' faces, animated or otherwise? And indeed, after my first viewing, my impression was that it was an audacious and impressive experiment, but one could see why it wasn't really tried again. Yet I was wrong on two counts. For one thing, it was tried again because, as I indicated, Reiniger continued working until her death, producing numerous silhouetted shorts and features over the years, which won her much acclaim. And also, I was wrong because Prince Achmed left an impression: as I reflected back on it, recalling many of its gorgeous images and brilliantly composed actions, I wanted to see it again and wallow in its cultivated beauty.
Furthermore, the more I found out about Reiniger and her work, the more fascinated I became with the film. Not only was she that rarest of auteurs, a female filmmaker, she was also a pioneer. Born into comfort and encouraged by her parents to use her imagination, she got an early start, acting as a teenager in German plays and winning attention for her elaborate and creative shadow plays. As a beautiful young woman, she worked with and then married Carl Koch, who became her creative partner for life as they traversed the many scenes of interwar Europe - Weimer Berlin as the German film industry earned its international reputation, Paris where they dabbled with the avant-garde, hung out with Bertolt Brecht, and worked with Jean Renoir, and Rome, where they took over an abandoned Renoir project and co-directed it on the eve of World War II.
The war found the couple back in Germany, where - despite being Leftists - they lived and worked under the Nazis, nursing Lotte's ill mother and barely surviving off food stamps. After the war, they emigrated to London where they lived out the rest of their days, finding great success (though financial comfort was only intermittent) as Lotte produced children's silhouette films for British and American television. I learned all of this information from a documentary included with the Prince Achmed DVD, which also contained lots of photos of Lotte Reiniger as she progressed through her fascinating life.
You can see a sharp transformation in these pictures - early on, she is a gorgeous girl, seemingly light-hearted and happy. But by her thirties she is overweight, her looks transformed, and - except for a few smiling snapshots, a heaviness seems to have descended over her. We learn that she was an "introvert" while her husband was more outgoing, that she often stayed behind to work while he traveled with Renoir, throwing himself into live-action film production and (it is hinted) romancing a few leading ladies. Though there are plenty of indications that Reiniger found happiness in middle and old age, it is also suggested that she found refuge in her love of fairy tales, retreating into a poignantly romantic (yet also playful and mischievous) world of fantasy and adventure.
And what of Prince Achmed, which I've barely discussed so far? It seems an amalgamation of a few different Arabian tales, including that of Aladdin. Prince Achmed is a royal sent flying to the stars on his mechanical horse, tricked by an evil magician. When he comes down to earth he is far from home and must find his way back - which leads him through one enchanted encounter after another - with horny handmaidens, a beautiful woman, genies, witches, and demons galore. And all of this is in sharp, delicate yet robust silhouette - the limitations of the form also its strengths. The figures and locations become archetypes, at once dazzling because of their intricate detail and mysterious because of their hidden quality.
Prince Achmed also reminds us of the potential animation has, to transcend the limits of live-action (especially in this early period). The figures move with a startling and sinuous fluidity, as if dancing on gossamer - a fluidity which makes even the most agile human being seem laborious by comparison, like those dancing hippos in Fantasia. And many scenes contain an erotic energy which is rare in even the most lusty pre-Code live action cinema: witness the aforementioned handmaidens who toss themselves onto Achmed's body like hungry rabbits, only to turn on one another erupting into viciously jealous catfights (to mix the anthropomorphic analogies). At one point two concubines even lean in to kiss Achmed and he ducks, causing them to accidentally kiss one another. Even Pandora's Box does not go so far in its latent lesbianism.
A less frothy, more subdued and elegiac eroticism presents itself when Achmed first meets the beautiful Princess Pari Banou. She swoops down to the riverbank, lightly enmeshed in the feathers and headpiece of a swan, gently shuffles off her costume, and wades into the waters (dazzlingly conveyed with Reiniger's subtle touch) where she bathes. Achmed grasps at her clothes, pulling them into the brush where he hides like a prankish child, withholding them as he begs her to come with him. At first she refuses and, ever the chivalric gentleman, he accepts her refusal with bitter but dignified regret.
And then - somehow this is conveyed even in the black silhouette - we see her hesitate, tremble almost with the sense of what she is giving up and what lies ahead, and change her mind, throwing Achmed into a quiet ecstasy. Here we see Reiniger, the shy introvert, the creative mind, the fantastical young woman more in love with fairy tales than the modern world, face up to the gauntlet thrown down by life: the challenge to push oneself creatively, to explore the world, to suffer the slings and arrows of the artistic life with all that life entails.
And she accepts.