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Marvels & Tales 17.1 (2003) 181-183
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The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Germany. 1926. B&W/Tinted. 65 minutes. Directed by Lotte Reiniger. Lotte Reiniger: Homage to the Inventor of the Silhouette Film. Documentary 1999. B&W/Color. 60 minutes. Written and directed by Katja Raganelli. Diorama Film GmbH. Animated advertisement for Nivea Cream. by Lotte Reiniger, 1921. Video and Press Kit. British Film Institute and Milestone Film & Video, 2001.
This collector's edition video released by Milestone Film & Video in 2001 contains the carefully-restored Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger along with a documentary produced in 1999 of Reiniger's life and works, and an unexpected but charming short advertisement for Nivea Cream created by Reiniger. An excellent accompanying press kit from Milestone provides a comprehensive synposis of Achmed as well as interesting historical material on the filmmaker and the work behind the film.
The original negative of Achmed was destroyed during the Battle of Berlin in 1945, and no original German version exists. The current restored version was produced from dupe-negatives made from a first-generation colored nitrate positive, housed at the British Film Institute in the years 1925-27 to serve as base material for making new copies.
The sixty-five-minute animated silhouette film The Adventures of Prince Achmed was Reiniger's first feature-length film which she made with her husband, Karl Koch, and a band of other notables including Walter Ruttmann and Bertold Bartosch, completed in 1926. The film took three years to make because, according to Reiniger's own words, "such a film demands that for each second, 24 different frames be taken" (Milestone Press Kit, 2001). By my calculations, that's 93,600 frames for a sixty-five-minute film. Quite an awe-inspiring accomplishment, not least because it was created in "the attic of the garage in the vegetable garden" of the group's sponsor, Louis Hagen. However, not even this is the slackjaw part.
The real gobsmacker about Achmed are the intricate, filigree silhouette figures and scenery, each cut and articulated, limb by limb, by means of small wires by Reiniger's "magic hands"—an attribute coined by Jean Renoir. Although never a fan of silhouette films, even as a child, I have to concede that the delicacy and detail of these silhouettes is truly extraordinary. The [End Page 181] "acting" in the film is equally awe-inspiring in the expressive poses which Reiniger places her figures, rendering the narrative meaning of the film unequivocal despite the absence of facial details or expressions or verbalization. However, it should be pointed out here that Reiniger made or contributed to over eighty films using her silhouetting skills in this way, so that Achmed is by no means a rarity from the technical point of view.
The drama of the film also owes a great deal to the music of Wolfgang Zeller who wrote the score as they created the film so that music and action are intimately connected intensifying the narrative. Katja Raganelli's documentary which follows Achmed on the video indicates that Reiniger was one of the first filmmakers to completely harmonize movement with music. Reiniger's relationship to music is clear in the graceful movements of her characters which are very often balletic in space and time. Indeed, as the documentary shows, later in her life Reiniger published "A Small History of Ballet in Silhouettes" which she illustrated with her intricately cut figurines.
Discussions of the historical importance of the film Achmed are most likely to center around a debate of who made the first full-length animated feature film. Although a small number of other films can stake a claim to being the first, it is the comparison to Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, generally accepted (by Hollywood at least) as being the first animated feature film, that has captured attention. Not that there is any controversy about the fact that Achmed predates the Disney film by more than ten years. However, the comparison seems to me somewhat suspect in any case since the medium is quite...