In the world of classic film, light is often shed on the men behind the lens: Fleming, Cukor, Wilder, and Capra, amongst many others. Was showbiz really just a man’s world?
The answer is: absolutely not! Enter Weimar Germany, an era when artistic experimentation was ripe and fruitful. It was a time and place that provided freedom for many who would’ve been ostracized in the United States at that time, such as the LGBT community, people of color, and strong, enterprising women.
Which then leads me to one Lotte Reiniger. Reiniger, a young German woman, was a trailblazer in the world of animation, eclipsing Walt Disney’s rise by a decade or two. As a child, she was increasingly fascinated by the Javanese tradition of Wayang shadow puppetry and the Chinese theater. It wasn’t until she watched the short, fantastical films of French filmmaker George Melies that she realized the untapped potential of animation.
Reiniger went on to invent the technique of silhouette animation, creating approximately 40 films in this style (most of which are unfortunately lost). The beauty of Reiniger’s technique is its ability to look cutting-edge in a timeless way, even when compared to today’s advanced CGI and green screen techniques. Without a doubt, her work pioneered all the animation films and television shows of today.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed is perhaps Reiniger’s best-known film (in addition to being considered by many as the first-ever feature length animated film). She found fairy tales to be the richest source of material for her beautiful, intricate shadow animations, and here she drew from the Arabian Nights.
The film combines the storylines of several Arabian Nights tales, revolving around a Prince named Achmed who is tricked by an evil sorcerer into flying a magical horse to his death. However, the Prince foils the sorcerer and embarks on a whirlwind of adventures, fighting evil creatures, rescuing his sister, and falling in love with the ethereal Princess Pari Banu. Keep your eyes peeled for the scene where our noble prince joins forces with an adventurous young man named Aladdin! (and as a nod back to this film, Disney’s animated version of Aladdin features a cameo appearance by a character named Prince Achmed).
Even though the plot of The Adventures of Prince Achmed is predictable and old hat thanks to the constant re-hashing of fairy tale stories, the film stands out because of it’s brilliant, beautiful artwork that remains jaw-dropping, even today. Reiniger’s silhouette technique was painstaking, involving cardboard cutouts of each frame placed over nitrate sheets. The film took Reiniger three years to complete, with approximately 24 frames needed to complete each second of film. Reiniger herself would move the cardboard puppets across the nitrate and glass sheets. Her cutouts were bound by wire hinges, which made them easy to move. Other materials were used to create special affects and backgrounds. For example, sand and soap were used to create a starry sky and an ocean. The detailed shadows were accompanied by rich color tints as a background. All in all, approximately 96,000 frames of film were shot before the editing process began.
Thankfully, this magical avant-garde treasure is readily available here. Reiniger’s other fairytale-inspired silhouette films are easily available on YouTube as well. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a must-see film that was truly ahead of its time!