"Please, sister, if you are not sleepy, tell us one of your little tales."—Dinarzad to Shaharazad, The Arabian Nights (trans. Husain Haddawy)
It is related, O King, that during the Caliph's birthday party, a wicked wizard arrived with a flying horse of his own invention, which spirited the Caliph's son, Prince Achmed, into the sky, so that the wizard might have his way with Achmed's sister, the delicate Dinarsade. In the course of his adventures, Prince Achmed rescued the exquisite Pari Banu from her harem in the demon-filled lands of Wak-Wak, catching her when she transformed from a bird of paradise into a maiden in order to bathe by the lake.
But Prince Achmed could not live happily ever after just yet. There was still the devious emperor of China to contend with. And the demon hordes of Wak-Wak, come to steal back their mistress. And the wizard himself. But with new allies, an ugly witch and the legendary Aladin, our hero can prevail over evil.
Most people know Disney's Snow White as the first animated feature film. Wrong. While Uncle Walt was still producing his formative "Alice in Cartoonland" series, German silhouette artist Lotte Reiniger produced a masterpiece in her employer's garage. But even if did not predate Walt's feature by over a decade, The Adventures of Prince Achmed would remain a beautiful piece of animation art. Designed entirely in high-contrast silhouettes, cut in meticulous detail, the story is a reflection of Reiniger's years of theatrical experience (it is even structured in acts): archetypal characters displaying vivid emotions in a tale that takes advantage of the new medium of cinema to show fluid transformations and visual wonders. Even a simple gesture, like Pari Banu doffing her bird costume to become human, seems gentle and engaging. There are battles and romance and all the stuff we expect from an animated epic, and the silhouette style gives it enough of an abstract quality that we can fill in all the fine details with our imagination, giving a more vivid portrait than special effects at the time might have been able to handle.
Although the original negative of Reiniger's classic vanished years ago, Milestone Films presents a 1999 tinted restoration from a British print, timed to the film's original score. Although the film is somewhat flickery and scratched, and some of the detailed backgrounds are lost to fading, there is still an almost hypnotic quality to The Adventures of Prince Achmed that few contemporary films have managed to match. Along with the feature, Milestone offers Katja Raganelli's 1999 documentary, "Lotte Reiniger: Homage to the Inventor of the Silhouette Film." With the grace of a puppetmaster, Reiniger not only shaped beautiful figures, but managed a long and accomplished career during a tumultuous period in Europe.
As one of the few successful female directors in film history, Reiniger was always conscious of the roles of women in art. Born in 1899, she turned her love of fairy tales into delicate silhouettes and performed shadow theater. Employed as an art teacher, she produced The Adventures of Prince Achmed with financial support from her banker employer over a three year period. Timed to an original score (although the film itself is silent), the feature is wonderfully paced and should engage even children who might normally balk at watching a silent movie (Milestone even includes an alternate audio track with English spoken intertitles, although curiously these rarely match the printed subtitle translation from the German). The film was a box-office disappointment in 1926, probably because it was just too innovative for an audience then unfamiliar with Reiniger's style (Walt Disney had the advantage of building momentum through short cartoons for years before he made his feature debut). However, Reiniger pressed on with new projects, like an adaptation of Dr. Doolittle, and hung out with artists like Brecht and Renoir (for whom her husband worked as a writer and technical advisor). In the 1930s, she fled Germany for England, where she found success producing silhouette cartoons for television and advertising, making her a recognizable fixture on the European popular culture landscape throughout the 1950s. One of her ads, "Secret of the Marquise," is included on this disc. The secret in question is that the marquise uses Nivea soap, in case you asked.
Children and adults will find much to enjoy in Reiniger's film. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is full of fascinating images and plenty of rousing adventure. Do not let the "silent film" thing throw you off: this is a masterpiece that feels as inventive now as when audiences viewed it in 1926. Although Milestone's print could still benefit from a bit more restoration, even in its weakened state, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is marvelous.
History has vindicated the artistry of Lotte Reiniger and company. This court is adjourned.
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