Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (1926)

A while ago, I had the opportunity to watch The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the very first animated feature film (or at least the first one surviving to this day). It’s not what we now call “traditionally-animated”, i.e., drawing characters on cels and photographing them in front of backgrounds, but it does follow a tradition, an even older one: that of shadow plays. The director and principal artist, German Lotte Reiniger, used models intricately cut out from cardboard and other materials, sometimes using joints to give them limited articulation akin to modern stop-motion films. They are lit from below, the only colour coming from the tinted backgrounds.

Considering the highly labour-intensive technique and its inherent limitations, the animation is astonishingly fluid and masterful and the characters are stunningly expressive. There’s never really any doubt about what happens or how the protagonists feel about it despite there being no spoken dialogue (it’s a silent film) and relatively minimal intertitles. That’s no mean feat for a film that has several antagonists and plot threads intermingling and features some plot twists.

The story begins with an FX-heavy sequence in which an evil sorcerer creates a magical flying horse, intending to present it to a Middle-eastern king in order to win the hand of his daughter. The presentation goes awry, sending the wizard to jail (from which he easily escapes in a disturbing transformation sequence, to plot and execute a new approach for his goals), and sending the main character, Prince Achmed, off to the titular adventures before he can return home with a new-found wife in tow.

The plural in the title is relevant, since the plot really is fairly episodic, divided into separate independent chunks that only come together at the end. This structure is borrowed from the source/inspiration, the Arabian Nights, and works quite well, even if one particular episode, a story-within-a-story featuring Aladdin, doesn’t seem strictly necessary beyond padding and maybe because the audience expected it (Aladdin and his lamp didn’t really have to be part of the film for it to work) and drags a bit. Another hold-over from the original tales are the vaguely “deus ex machina”-like endings to some of the segments which come about more due to coincidence and contrivance than thanks to actions on the parts of the heroes, but I guess that’s part of the genre.

There is some subversion of fairy-tale clichés going on, with an ugly witch actually helping Achmed and Aladdin against the scheming wizard. A battle in which the two magic users transform into different animals is a pretty clear precursor to a similar scene in Disney’s The Sword in the Stone (1963). Other women don’t fare so well, despite the female director, in that they are quite passive; Achmed’s eventual wife is essentially kidnapped three times (once by Achmed, though he relents at seeing her distress) and betrothed to a loathsome Chinese character against her will, and his sister is given to Aladdin by her father.
Additionally, the evil wizard is explicitly and needlessly called the African sorcerer, and there are numerous culturally insensitive moments regarding the Chinese Emperor and his entourage.

On the whole, however, the story is exciting and appropriately adventurous enough to let one overlook these elements. There are also quite a few little moments of humour (like the sorcerer just shrugging and looking at the camera when asked if Achmed knows how to use the magic horse, the entire episode in which Achmed accidentally breaks into a harem, and the way an obnoxious side character is dispatched when Achmed comes to the rescue of one his women) that bring some levity to the otherwise dramatic fairy-tale plot. The original music, by Wolfgang Zeller, sounds surprisingly modern and fitting, though it becomes a bit overbearing and repetitive towards the end.

Ultimately, Achmed is worth a watch not just because of its age and status as a “first” of cinema, but also because it remains genuinely entertaining and, at times, awe-inspiring in the face of its artistry.

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