Long considered cinema’s oldest surviving feature-length animation, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) is finally released this week on a widely available format – something that, until recently, had been an impossible feat. Procurable, as is now customary with BFI home entertainment, in a Dual Format edition accompanied by a specially recorded narration (by actress Penelope McGhie) and Wolfgang Zeller’s original score, Reiniger’s enthralling, pioneering debut feature is thankfully being given the treatment it deserves by an institution fully aware of its forgotten cinematic status.
Painstakingly produced between 1923 to 1926, the film’s original negative was destroyed in 1945 and thought to be lost forever until a nitrate copy was found in the BFI’s archive and restored to its former glory. Now, for the first time viewers are able to experience Reiniger’s innovative and influential craft in a rudimentary silhouette animation (which she herself called “shadows films”) that boasts an intrinsically lifelike, filmic exuberance. Amalgamating magical tales from the Arabian Nights, the film – also known as The Tale of the Magic Horse – tells the story of young Prince Achmed, a brave explorer who relishes any opportunity for adventure.
When Achmed is presented with the challenge of flying a mechanical magic horse, conjured into existence by a scheming, malevolent sorcerer, our brave protagonist is thrust head-first into a series of exciting and dangerous escapades that take him from Baghdad to China via the enchanted spirit lands of Wak-Wak. Encountering such recognised characters as Aladdin, the Witch of the Fiery Mountain, Princess Pari Benu, the Caliph and Princess Dinarzade, the story swiftly moves through a variety of colourful worlds and vivid set pieces, culminating in an age-old good versus evil yarn that helped lay down the foundations for ensuing family-friendly animations (including those of Disney and Pixar) to follow and uphold.
An intricate assemblage of black cardboard shadow puppets, created by the use of tiny pairs of straight nail scissors that were then manipulated using sheets of lead joined by wires on a homemade contraption (called a ‘Tricktisch’, or a trick table), The Adventures of Prince Achmed is an astounding triumph of imagination and craft. Reiniger’s most subsidised film – funded and sponsored by a banker whose father shepherded the film’s revival in the 1970s – Achmed is the product of a small team of animators unaware of the future influence their ingenuity would have.
The film’s life-like, dreamy and melancholic qualities are just as (if not more) expressive and rhythmic as a high percentage of today’s animated output – commercial offerings that increasingly trade creativity for imagination-free derivativeness. As a percussive precursor to cinema’s appropriation of fairy tales, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a remarkable landmark in the history of animation, and the BFI’s release – complemented by essays and a handful of Reiniger’s short films – does it full, affectionate justice.