Silent Sunday: The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

These days, of course, we’d probably have to frown upon the orientalism of the whole thing if we considered ourselves politically correct, but since I don’t I’ll just have to settle for enjoying the film. I was delighted to find the BFI edition of the film recently, and delighted to watch it again tonight; first saw it eight or nine years ago courtesy of the estimable Jan Willis, who used to supply me with masses of stuff taped off Turner Classic Movies, including this… The prize for creator of the animated feature film seems to be that Cristiani fellow from Argentina (the DVD’s liner notes ludicrously assign credit to Winsor McCay’s Lusitania film, which is not a feature), but since his films vanished decades ago Lotte Reiniger certainly has the earliest surviving example, and a singular one at that thanks to the silhouette technique involved. Achmed is an extraordinary achievement in many ways, not least because Reiniger made it with such a small crew (husband Carl Koch and a handful of assistants like Walter Ruttmann—interesting to see this again having seen Ruttmann’s own animations, now I can spot the things he must’ve done in this), and constructed all the silhouette models herself. Little wonder it took three years to make. It was sufficiently out there stylistically that its first German audiences didn’t get it, but it was well received by the French; Jean Renoir was such a fan he became friends with Reiniger and Koch, working with the latter on various films during the 30s (Reiniger also did a shadow theatre scene for La marseillaise), while they took over his unfinished Tosca when he fled to the US. It’s literal Arabian nights stuff that packs a remarkable amount of narrative into a running time of just over an hour, but the animation itself, the artwork, is what really matters. Pioneering but not primitive at all, and still quite splendid 85 years later; now I want the other BFI disc of her short films…

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