Halloween films: <i><b>The Adventures of Prince Achmed</i></b>

![][1]Here is an enchanting fantasia, a landmark of Weimar and the earliest extant full-length animated film.[Lotte Reininger][2] appeared on the Berlin scene at the end of the First World War as a teenaged art prodigy with a jones for movies and Chinese shadowbox theater. She joined Max Reinhardt's theater company, which like D. W. Griffith's troupe seethed with talent, and there she attracted attention for her ability with scissors and paper to cut perfect silhouettes of anyone or anything. Reininger was fascinated by the animation possibilities offered by articulated silhouettes and became part of Weimar's uberhip animation crowd--the crowd that embodied the union of painting and film at the heart of cinematic Expressionism, the kids in the blackest t-shirts. She worked on several of Paul Wegener's films, joined a commercially sophisticated avant-garde animation studio, and married writer, artist and lifelong collaborator Carl Koch, with whom she designed a multiplane animation camera. In 1923 she was given thousands of feet of unshot film stock by a banker who got stuck with it in a bad business deal and had no use for it. Seizing the providential opportunity to make a feature-length animated film, she wrote a script and assembled a small circle of collaborators to shoot it.Three years later they completed The Adventures of Prince Achmed, an elaborate, roccoco pastiche from the tales of Scheherazade populated with jet-black animated silhouettes of extraordinary detail and complexity, most of them cut from thin strips of lead; the silhouettes are remarkable testaments to Reiniger's preternatural skill with her scissors. The silhouettes have articulated joints; they are held together and are controlled by invisibly fine wires, and they move--walk, entreat, leap, race, weep, battle, curse, collapse, declaim, conjure, fly--in a fabulous inky bonsai world full of filagreed trees, chandelier headdresses, winged demons, minarets and erupting volcanoes. A flying horse is a principal figure in the story. The silhouettes move with prehensile expressiveness, like a shape-shifting pool of ink, the effect is that of a confident artist with a sinuous, feathery line. The shimmering, luminescent backgrounds and fluid special effects incorporate then-unprecedented animation techniques using unconventional media like wax and sand, which when combined with Reininger's and Koch's groundbreaking multiplane photography produced a phantasmagorical chinoiserie universe perfectly suited to the story's exotic characters: a beautiful Princess, a wily and dangerous Magician, a cheerful Emperor, a hideous Witch, Alladin and his lamp, and our hero, Prince Achmed, "young and brave, not afraid of any adventure," who falls in love with the beautiful maiden Peri Banu in Wak Wak, the Land of Demons. Everything about The Adventures of Prince Achmed is groundbreaking: its length, its techniques, its liquidly precise, aesthetically formal visuals, its synchronized original Wolfgang Zellner score. It is an astonishing accomplishment in experimental cinema and an enthralling motion pictureIn [Reininger's own words][3]:The technique of this type of film is very simple. As with cartoon drawings, the silhouette films are photographed movement by movement. But instead of using drawings, silhouette marionettes are used. These marionettes are cut out of black cardboard and thin lead, every limb being cut separately and joined with wire hinges. A study of natural movement is very important, so that the little figures appear to move just as men and women and animals do. But this is not a technical problem. The backgrounds for the characters are cut out with scissors as well, and designed to give a unified style to the whole picture. They are cut from layers of transparent paper.When the story is ready, the music chosen, and the soundtrack recorded, then the work for the picture itself begins. Figures and backgrounds are laid out on a glass table. A strong light from underneath makes the wire hinges, etc., disappear and throws up the black figures in relief, while the background appears as a more or less fantastic landscape in keeping with the story. The camera hangs above this table, looking down at the picture arranged below. By means of a wire contrivance the film in the camera can be moved one frame at a time. After the first photograph, the figures are moved into their next position, and the whole photographed again. And so on. The important thing at this stage is to know how much to move the figures so that a lifelike effect may be obtained when the film is run through.The synchronization between sight and sound is secured by carefully measuring the sound track, and preparing a very exactly worked out scenario, in which the number of shots are calculated according to the musical value. These calculations are the basis for the picture, which is then painstakingly photographed._When Lotte Reininger released The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Walt Disney was making ten-minute black-and-white "Alice" one-reelers. _Steamboat Wllie was two years away; Snow White 10.![][4]The people who made The Adventures of Prince Achmed were at the cutting edge of Weimar cinema and culture. The film's translucent backgrounds and special effects suggesting lightning, explosions and magical emanations were the work of Walther Ruttman, a filmmaker with whom Reiniger created a memorable fx shot in Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen in 1924. Ruttman was 35 years old when he went to work on The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a former architecture student and painter who turned to experimental film after serving as an infantry officer in World War I. His is the most distinguished of the several notable careers attached to Reininger's film. In 1921 Ruttman, a leading figure in Weimar's avant-garde, created Lichtspiel Opus I, one of the very first abstract animated films, which was accompanied by an original score composed specifically for the images in the film. Opus I was 13 minutes long and (unusually) in color; Ruttman produced the effect by hand-coloring each frame of the film with watercolor paint. Some scholars consider the premiere of Opus I to be the first time an abstract film of any kind was commercially exhibited. Ruttman went on to produce three additional abstract animated films, Ops II-IV, and then in 1927, the year after The Adventures of Prince Achmed was released, created a whole new genre of film with [Berlin: Symphony of a City][5], a dawn-to-nightfall continuous rhythmic montage of Berlin that inspired "city symphony" imitations around the world. (It was [remade][6] three years ago.) Ruttman was a pioneer of non-representational "visual music" and remains an influential figure at the nexus of music and film. Unlike so many of his avant-garde colleagues and collaborators, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the National Socialist regime when it came to power. He advised Leni Riefenstahl on the editing of [Olympia][7], directed propoganda films at the regime's behest and died on the eastern front filming maneuvers during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Ruttman and Riefenstahl are the greatest artists to embrace National Socialism of which I am aware.Wolfgang Zeller, composer of the score for The Adventures of Prince Achmed, was also identified with the regime. Zeller's Achmed score was the first of more than 60 he would produce in a career that lasted more than 30 years; he became one of the most successful and prolific composers in all of German cinema. His [career][8] does not seem to have been badly hampered by the fact that he scored [Jud SüÃ][9], the most notorious of the many antisemitic films produced under Nazi sponsorship.![][10] In 1932 Berthold Bartosch, responsible for some of the background effects in_The Adventures of Prince Achmed, created [_L'Idee][11], a 30-minute allegorical film which Alexander Alexeieff, himself a colossal figure in the history of animation, called "the first serious, poetic, tragic work in animation." In the late 1940s Bartosch spent a year mentoring [George Dunning][12], who 20 years later created the animation for [Yellow Submarine][13].Reininger and Koch were leftists and made [repeated efforts][14] to leave Germany after 1932, but were unable to find a country willing to extend them permanent visas. They left Germany on "vacations" or to work on the projects of other filmmakers, notably Jean Renoir and Bertolt Brecht, but always had to return. Sometimes they worked in different countries, and saw each other only in passing in train stations. Koch became one of Renoir's regular collaborators and in 1939 co-wrote with him [The Rules of the Game][15], which as Roger Ebert has observed bears the burden of being thought the second-greatest film ever made. Renoir made it to Hollywood; Reininger and Koch ended up back in Germany. They survived the war, but The Adventures of Prince Achmed didn't; the original negative was destroyed during the Battle of Berlin. The film was first restored in the 1950s from a British nitrate print and has been further [restored for DVD][16] and again synchronized to Zeller's original score. [1]: http://ec1.images-amazon.com/images/P/B0000714B2.01.SCLZZZZZZZ.jpg [2]: http://www.awn.com/mag/issue1.3/articles/moritz1.3.html [3]: http://www.milestonefilms.com/pdf/AchmedPK.pdf [4]: http://www.rimusicazioni.it/database/hk4/LucaFrigo/opus%201.jpg [5]: http://www.allmovie.com/cg/avg.dll?p=avg&sql=A4873 [6]: http://www.allmovie.com/cg/avg.dll?p=avg&sql=1:281701 [7]: http://www.riefenstahl.org/director/1938/ [8]: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0954632/ [9]: http://film.virtual-history.com/film.php?filmid=2361 [10]: http://oak.cats.ohiou.edu/~ms538596/ys2.gif [11]: http://www.hushvideos.com/RV-Ber.shtml [12]: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/566191/ [13]: http://www.toonopedia.com/yellosub.htm [14]: http://www.iotacenter.org/program/publication/moritz/moritz10 [15]: http://www.geocities.com/Paris/Metro/9384/films/rules_of_the_game/ [16]: http://www.fiafnet.org/pdf/uk/fiaf61.pdf


lazz 11 years, 5 months ago

Amazing stuff, Patrick, and great writing. Beautiful.

Pleading ignorance:

Who is Scheherazade?

Also, congrats on finding a vehicle for using the secret password: "rococo pastiche."

By the way, kids, Lawrence library has this DVD.

quinn 11 years, 5 months ago

Thanks, Lazz. Scheherazade is the beautiful maiden who tells the 1,001 Tales of the Arabian Nights. I think Achmed and Peri Banu are minor figures from that assortment. I'll be interested in hearing yr rxn to the film. The next Halloween pic is DRACULA....

quinn 11 years, 5 months ago

The 1931 original, w/ side trips to the 1931 Spanish version and maybe a couple of others....

Lugosi is untouchable.

"For one who has lived only one lifetime, you are a wise man, Van Helsing...."

lazz 11 years, 5 months ago

The 1931 original?? What about NOSFERATU of 1922???

quinn 11 years, 5 months ago

NOSFERATU will get a namecheck, and next year I'll do it up properly, but this year is the Lugosi film, my all-time fave and one of the worst Great Films ever made....

manofleisure 11 years, 5 months ago


As always, mate, absolutely fascinating. I have been slowly but surely watching all the B. Keaton shorts (I just can't bring myself to watch the talkies) with Miles. I am wondering, though, whether this is something that he might be into. I think I am going to order it regardless - for my cinema class, of course.

Cheers, ML

quinn 11 years, 5 months ago

I think Miles will love it. It's visually entrancing, and the simulation of movement is breathtaking; there are moments when it seems to foreshadow the the wild WB stuff that came out of Termite Terrace. And I hope you really do show it to yr cinema class, because this film deserves to be seen.

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