The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the oldest surviving animated feature film and the third one ever made. (Two Argentinian films by Quirino Cristiani predated it, but were lost in a fire.) It came out in 1926, at which point in time, the most prolific and profitable animation industry was the large ecosystem of Hollywood studios producing hand-drawn cel animation shorts. The dozens of American pioneers’ technical and artistic development eventually culminated in 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first animated feature made in America, which launched the “animated movie” as we know it today.
Prince Achmed, by contrast, came from a very different scene 11 years earlier: European modern art. It is a German art film made with stop motion shadow puppets, unlike anything going on in American studios.
Lotte Reiniger and her husband and creative partner Carl Koch were deeply embedded in the German art world. The years leading up to Prince Achmed saw two foundationally important (and related) German art forces: Bauhaus and expressionsm. The former, the influential art school that emphasized simple, industrial designs blending form and function, pointed Reiniger towards a film medium defined by its physicality and sharp, solid shapes. The latter, a film style that peaked with movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, and Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, drew Reiniger towards a dark and inscrutable visual style.
The formal inspiration behind Prince Achmed was a blend of two unique but aesthetically linked media: First, Indonesian shadow theater known as “Wayang,” notable for its ornate, fractal-esque character designs. Second, the German pastime of scissor-cutting, an arts-and-crafts hobby by European housewives of cutting patterns in paper. Scissor-cutting was viewed as quaint and lowbrow; thus, Reiniger’s elevation of it to the cornerstone of a high-art animation epic was a feminist statement (which is true whether done intentionally or otherwise; Reiniger was an outspoken leftist, but I’m not sure if she ever explicitly identified feminism as a important driver of the creation of Prince Achmed).
After getting sponsored by a banker in 1923, Reiniger conceived of a stop-motion retelling of some stories from A Thousand and One Nights. She designed a multi-plane animation set-up that allowed for a strong sense of depth and independently moving, back-lit entities within the frame. She also experimented with the use of non-paper materials for certain sequences in the film: e.g. the use of translucent soap during the emergence of Aladdin’s genie.
It took her two grueling years to make. Every frame was captured individually, which is almost hard to believe when you’re watching: Some of the character animation is so smooth it genuinely looks like it’s being manipulated in real time. Some frames contain hundreds of individually cut pieces of paper. It’s astonishing, grueling work that pays off in spades.
The film’s look is nothing short of a miracle, the shadow puppet style deeply satisfying and rich to watch. Color-tinted backgrounds add dimension to the film’s flavor, giving different scenes different moods. Despite the expressive limitations of the silhouette style — necessarily limited to outlines and lacking ornamentation within the figures themselves — the film brings each character and setting to vivid life. Waterfalls pour, dancers wiggle, demons rage. It’s truly breathtaking.
Prince Achmed’s 66 minutes move quickly and episodically, as we hop from one encounter or set piece or battle to the next. Any longer might have been too much for the story. The film’s peak is the climax, an epic battle between nearly every character we’ve met throughout the film, as Prince Achmed defeats the villainous African sorcerer and the demons of Wak Wak.
The narrative operates in a fairytale storytelling cadence, with a certain dreamlike unpredictability to character motivations and plot twists. There’s also a very strong element of racial caricature, both Asian and African, that is off-putting but predictable for Europeans retelling “Oriental” tales.
The Adventure of Prince Achmed is, ultimately, an enduring gem, worth watching for its distinctive and memorable animation even outside of its immense historical significance.