Well…time for more popcorn, Red Vines, Raisinettes, and a refill of that 97-ounce soda. We take a break from our regular look at obscure films with another edition of Intermission, which means another look at a cinematic chestnut that may have been lauded or groundbreaking in the past, but has since been forgotten in history’s hourglass.
The art of making films does not always require human characters. We have seen the future, and life forms come in all different shapes, all manners of tricky invention spun and tweaked through months of computer-generated exotica into various tales—action/adventure, science fiction, fantasy, and the deluge of superhero-centric films. This week’s Hidden Flick was the first feature-length animated film, a unique gem of meticulously crafted silhouettes, and we tip our hat to The Adventures of Prince Achmed.
The tale comes from a classic, time-honored source—excerpts from The Story of Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Paribanou, found within 1001 Arabian Nights, and featured in Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book. Prince Achmed, Aladdin, a flying horse and the Witch of the Fiery Mountain face-off with a formidable foe, an evil African sorcerer, in order to win the heart of Princess Peri Banu who comes from an island filled with magic.
Created by German animator and filmmaking pioneer Lotte Reiniger, she shot the scenes frame by frame using silhouette marionettes made out of cardboard and metal. Backbreaking and exhausting, requiring hundreds of hours of intricate, detail-oriented work without any mistakes appearing anywhere in the edit as to slow or alter the momentum of the characters, Reiniger is a true trailblazer whose gorgeous work throughout her career was sublime, but would never quite match the incredible beauty and pathos found within this 1926 animated film. Every seriously talented artist has the potential to paint their masterpiece, overshadowing all of their other work—past, present, or future—and Reiniger painted hers in this film.
Inspired by a popular art form in various cultures with its Asian roots firmly planted in the ancient Han Dynasty, Reiniger re-invented and transformed the shadow puppet theatre experience into one of the 20th Century’s most awe-inspiring animated art forms. Indeed, Reiniger’s characters come to life on the screen, manifesting feelings and emotions that one would not think possible from alleged ethereal soulless life forms. You’ll never look at cardboard and metal quite the same way.
Reiniger was able to breathe new life into cinema at a time when it was about to make another leap forward—the landmark movement into sound, forever altering the experience of watching cinema for cinema’s sake, without the hindrance of dialogue, a lame script, or some daft actor souring the mystique of the auteur’s vision. In The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Reiniger gave a truly fine gift—a great story wedded to a beautiful and vital art form rooted in an ancient past with a chance to show future audiences what it was like to feel, and experience this surreal thing we call LIFE.