Tuesday, September 17, 2013

(Not so) Dark Shadows

Film: Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

The DVD of Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed) opens with an explanation that there are no surviving original prints or negatives of this film. What we have was cobbled together. And then this bit of information fades and the film begins. We are introduced to the images of the half a dozen of the principle characters, and I knew that this was going to be one of those films that I immediately wondered how it had been ignored from The List for the first nine years. I knew in those first couple of minutes that this would be one of my favorites of the new additions. It is spectacular and completely original. I have never seen anything like it.

Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed is reputed to be the first full-length animated feature, beating Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by more than a decade. It also finally represents the year 1926, the only year between 1920 and 2011 that didn’t have at least on film of required viewing. As I said above, I can’t imagine how this was left out of the first volume.

The film is a pastiche of stories based loosely on the 1001 Arabian Nights. We start, after the introduction of the characters, with the creation of a magical horse by a powerful magician. The horse, thanks to levers on its head and tail, can fly and return to earth. The magician presents the horse to the Caliph on his birthday, but refuses to sell it and will not give it away. The Caliph offers the magician any treasure for the horse and the magician, as was evidently his plan the whole time, selects Dinarsade, the Caliph’s daughter and the brother of the eponymous Prince Achmed. While the Caliph’s court deals with the effrontery of the magician, Achmed is tricked onto the back of the flying horse and sent sailing into the sky where he learns over time to control the animal.

What follows is a series of adventures. Achmed rescues the beautiful princess Pari Banu from the demon-haunted islands of Wak-Wak, only to be thwarted by the same magician, who wants his horse back. Achmed pursues the magician and his kidnapped love around the world, befriending a witch and eventually meeting up with Aladdin. Naturally, it all comes down to a final confrontation between Achmed and his friends against the terrible magician.

There is very much a sense of grand adventure to this film, something akin to The Odyssey or the Voyages of Sinbad. It’s a tale of love at first sight and demons and monsters and high adventure in exotic locations. It’s impossible not to be enchanted by it on this level alone. Prince Achmed is a natural adjunct of Indiana Jones or Perseus. There’s even a reference toward the end to the 12 labors of Hercules.

However, even the entertaining series of stories and vignettes is not the sell of this enchanting film. What makes Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed worth watching is the animation itself. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is still the first full-length film of traditional animation, because this is filmed entirely as shadow puppets. We are given gloriously detailed silhouettes of the characters that are painstakingly animated frame by frame and movement by movement. These are extremely detailed for mid- and long shots, and even more detailed for close-ups, where each character is given facial features and moving eyes.

It is, in a word, astonishing. I can’t imagine the amount of work that went into producing these images and in making the puppets move so beautifully. While perhaps not as extreme as a film like Chicken Run with its massive cast of characters, it is also much earlier, and had a presumably much smaller crew. The effect of the shadows and the painstaking animation is nothing short of magical.

In truth, Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed is fluff in terms of the story and the way everything works out. The reason for viewing isn’t to see the plot, but to experience the spectacle and the artistry that went into making this film a reality.

In other words, I find it difficult to believe that someone could watch this an not be enchanted by it simply because of the way it looks. That the story is fun and exciting and filled with danger and romance is an added bonus. It’s truly special.

Why to watch Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed: It’s inexplicably gorgeous.
Why not to watch: Your heart is stone.


  1. I saw this several years ago and agree that its previous omission from The List is inexplicable. I have a subscription to Mubi where this film and a documentary on Reiniger are going to expire in the next couple of days. I'm going to move fast to watch them.

    1. This is the sort of film I love The List for. I'd never have watched this otherwise, and I'd have missed out on something really special.

  2. "Why not to watch: Your heart is stone."

    Perfectly said. This has been a favourite of mine for years.

    Unlikely as it may sound, though, credit for first animated feature goes to an Argentinian film called El Apostol made in 1917 by one Quirino Cristiani. Achmed is, however, certain;y the first surviving animated feature, what with pretty much all of Cristiani's work being lost.

    1. As indignant as I might be about some of the films that weren't added to this edition, I absolutely can't fault them for putting this one in. It's great.

      Thanks for the information about Cristiani. I was completely unaware.

  3. I just saw this. I agree with pretty much everything you wrote.

    I first heard about this film a few years ago when one of the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows films had a sequence in it called The Tale of the Three Brothers. Although it was cgi, the style of the animation was compared to the silhouette film The Adventures of Prince Achmed. When I looked into it I was amazed it was not in the list. It's one I am not surprised they added, and it was one I would have watched "someday" even if it hadn't been added.

    What got me about the cutouts was the sheer intricacy of some of them, especially the outfits of the women with all the feathers, lace, headdresses, veils, etc.

    I was originally going to watch this from the Youtube source, but I could only find subtitle files that translated the intertitles or the text onscreen during the scenes, but not both. "What onscreen text?", you might be asking. I'm not sure why or when, but someone has added additional dialogue to the version on Youtube. It's in (I think) Portuguese, so I couldn't follow it, but from the subtitles it is different text that what is on the intertitles. When I got the DVD today I was irritated at first that there was no onscreen text dialogue and that I could have just watched Youtube anyway, but then I poked around in the extras on the DVD and found the hour long doc on the life of Lotte Reineger, which was quite informative.

    1. I'm sure you have the Harry Potter films in your home, but if you don't want to have to search out that scene, here it is:


    2. We have all eight of the Potter films. They're also some of the only movies I've seen on opening night--not all of them, but enough of them.

      I'm with you on this. It's not just the sheer joy of the beautiful animation, but the beauty of the shadow puppets themselves that makes this film worth watching. These are works of art in and of themselves. The picture at the top of this review gives some indication of them--they're all like that.

  4. I guess you said it all about this. Maybe i was not as infatuated by the story itself, but that does not matter, the artistry is the big sell and that is just stunning.

    1. The story is so secondary here. It's enough that it's coherent and has a beginning, middle, and end for me. It's really all about the beauty of what is on the screen as far as I am concerned.