Wednesday, June 19, 2024

First Contact: The Adventures of Prince Achmed

The earliest surviving animated feature length film—a fairy tale from a lost world

A friend of a friend once said that one of the many terrible things the Nazis did was destroy the film industry that prospered in Germany under the Weimar Republic. That is, admittedly, by no means the worst thing that the Nazis did, but it was not good. You had some path-breaking filmmaking, pushing the boundaries of a totally new art form, replaced by endless rows of goose-stepping brownshirts, noisome propaganda films, Leni Riefenstahl using whatever artistic ability she had to defend a mass murderer, and Hitler yelling. History has shown us time and again that state-managed media is never profound, or deep, or interesting; it’s only ever a pablum to make you deny the evidence of your eyes and ears. The arts are inevitably a casualty of tyranny.

Here, I’ll be discussing another standout film from the Weimar Republic: The Adventures of Prince Achmed, directed and written by Lotte Reiniger and distributed by Comenius-Film GbmH in 1926. This is a milestone in cinematic history, as it is the earliest surviving fully-animated feature film (there are two from Argentina that are unfortunately lost—although all sorts of old films have been found in warehouses in countries people wouldn’t expect, so here’s hoping they find it). It is also remarkable that said first animated feature film was one directed by a woman; ‘Lotte’ is a German diminutive of ‘Charlotte.’

The plot of this film, as the title may suggest, is adapted from a number of stories from Arabian Nights. The whole film is a lush romp through a lavishly detailed Arabia, a portrayal that is no doubt Orientalist in a number of its tropes but is nevertheless dazzling to look at. It has a few different tales cobbled together, so you have Prince Achmed featuring, but Aladdin also joins in the proceedings. I liked, perhaps most of all, the beginning with the flying horse that operates something like a jetpack that Achmed doesn’t really figure out how to operate until he is already lost.

It is, in some ways, very much of its time. The portrayal of Arabia is clearly something out of an Orientalist fantasy, but as I said, it’s gorgeous. The primary antagonist is an evil sorcerer, stated to be from Africa (although I’m not familiar with the Arab source, so that may be older than this film), who has a miserly look and a big nose. It’s the sort of thing that I suspect to be a primeval antisemitism (see the images on this essay by a Rabbi about modern manifestations of antisemitism), not even consciously expressed, but rather so deep in Western cultural memory we associate it with evil while not being aware of its origin. There’s also something that is both groundbreaking and somewhat uncomfortable in presentation; there is a kiss between two men who apparently love each other—but it is between an evil emperor of China and a trusted servant, which has both uncomfortable power dynamics and the old trope that same-sex attraction is the province of a depraved upper class (see how the Communist world for so long called homosexuality ‘bourgeois degeneracy’). Reiniger herself was outspokenly in favor of gay rights, so she meant well so far as I can tell, but she employed tropes, as in other places in the film, that did not age well.

What really stands out is the animation. It was done with something akin to shadow puppets, in addition to a wide variety of other materials, to create a wide variety of environments; her team used sand, soap, cardboard, and tissue paper. The end result feels both very old and very modern, like a minimalist animation made on a computer and put online with a simple but sweet message. The effect is one that feels natural, logical within its context, a world where palaces can fly and so can horses (although for the latter you need some training). When Reiniger made the film, she said she wanted to make something that wasn’t possible in live action, a sentiment that has aged surprisingly well. You could certainly make a live-action film like this nowadays, but all the magic would be CGI (which is itself a form of animation, perhaps proving her right in a way she could never anticipate).

The plot is simple, and it feels like a fairy tale. Those who want labyrinth dramas twisting every which way will be disappointed, but given the source material, it could only be like this. And that isn’t even a bad thing; viewing the film in the twenty-first century, the plot and the animation complement one another. It looks like a children’s book, with odd plot contrivances here and there, and simple motivations, but Reininger and crew made it feel primordial, like something in our collective subconscious that when brought to the surface makes us feel warm and whole and secure as she tells a story about princes and princesses with a cartoonish visual style and a myriad of colors. Should you watch it, imagine you’re a small child again, and a parent is reading you a bedtime story. That’s the tone.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a film very much of its time, but even so, values can and do resonate. It’s another work whose fingerprints can be seen all over, should you pay attention. It’s a film that, to modern audiences, has the paradoxical effect of simultaneously immersing you and completely breaking your immersion, forcing you to see its place in the world in a sort of artistically-inclined Brechtian distancing effect. It is short, only about an hour long, and magical in a way that adults often forget. It makes you wish that the Weimar age of German cinema could have had more decades to develop and flourish, to create more beautiful things like this. For all its faults and all its moorings in the past, it is a beautiful work of art, and I recommend it to anyone who may be interested.

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.