The First Feature Length Animated Film Is a Silhouetted Delight
Note: This is the hundred-and-fortieth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fifth favorite 1926 film, THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED, directed by Lotte Reiniger.
No, it wasn’t SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937) that brought the animated world out of the short subject. That honor goes to…well, it also technically doesn’t go to German artist, animator, and filmmaker Lotte Reiniger and her beautiful fairy tale that is THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED. The honor technically goes to Argentinian artist, animator, and filmmaker Quirino Cristiani, who employed a cutout/silhouette style not unlike Lotte Reiniger (Cristiani debuted in 1916, Reiniger in 1919, though of course both practiced their art before then). Cristiani’s 1917 film EL APÓSTOL deserves the credit of the world’s first feature length animated film, running about 70 minutes.
He even followed it up with the world’s second feature length animated film, SIN DEJAR RASTROS (1918). Cristiani also made, in 1931, the world’s first feature length animated film with synchronized sound, PELUDÓPOLIS. These were all political satires, filled with themes more mature than most any animated film’s of the time, or for some time to come. Unfortunately, Cristiani’s work made enemies and almost all of his work is now lost. But then, this isn’t about Cristiani. This is about Reiniger, who, even if her crowning achievement wasn’t now the oldest surviving feature length animated film, would go down in history as a filmmaking and animation pioneer.
Reiniger could be considered a member of the first generation influenced by cinema; born in 1899, she grew up a fan of the films of Georges Méliès and Paul Wegener. She ended up designing intertitles for the movies of the latter, a byproduct of her joining Max Reinhardt’s acting company and creating silhouette figures of her fellow performers. After joining the Institute for Cultural Research, an experimental film studio, Reiniger met her future husband, who she would marry in 1921: Carl Koch. A cinematographer, writer, designer, and animator, Koch assisted Reiniger on the making of THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED. Before and after it, he also helped produce and photograph his wife’s animated accomplishments.
Reiniger’s first film was THE ORNAMENT OF THE LOVESTRUCK HEART (1919), and over the years leading up to THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED, she also made advertising films and provided special effects for larger films, such as Fritz Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN films (1924). For her feature film, Reiniger also co-devised the first multiplane camera, an invention later credited to Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Reiniger made another feature in 1928, DOCTOR DOLITTLE AND HIS ANIMALS, and contributed a significant animated portion to live action film CHASING FORTUNE (1930).
The latter featured a performance from Berthold Bartosch, Reiniger’s artistic peer, assistant on her feature films, and the other inventive mind behind the multiplane camera predecessor. Jean Renoir also acted in the German film; Reiniger’s husband, Koch, would assist Renoir on LA GRANDE ILLUSION (1937) after the French director secured visas to get the couple into France in 1936. This was three years after moving away from Germany, where the left-wing couple did not feel safe amid the rise of Nazism. Until 1944, the pair did not have a permanent home, although they did manage to make a number of more animated films.
When they did find a permanent home, it was, unfortunately, Germany once again. Reiniger had to return to care for her sick mother, and for a relatively brief time, she had to make propaganda films under Hitler’s regime. After the war, Reiniger and Koch moved to London in 1949; Koch died in 1963, but Reiniger had never really stopped working, completing her last film, THE FOUR SEASONS, one year before her death in 1981. She left behind an incredible legacy that manifested in Disney (the magical transformation battle in THE SWORD IN THE STONE  is indebted to a scene in THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED) and animation styles and sequences the world over. She was speaking more specifically to the animation industry in this context, but an important reminder of Reiniger’s own commitment to her style and method of working is provided by the great filmmaker herself in her 1975 book SHADOW PUPPETS, SHADOW THEATRES AND SHADOW FILMS:
“Your aim must be to find what kind of talent you really have and to develop it.”
The ultimate icon of her legacy, as I’ve been pussyfootin’ around this whole time, is THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED. A pastiche of ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS tales rendered into stunning tinted celluloid fantasy, THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED is a minimalist picture. And yet every frame of the movie thrives with striking color and bold contrasts. Black outlines stand on bright blues and yellows, shapes writhe in fear, anger, excitement; the denizens of Reiniger’s world of light and shadow have more character than you might initially give them credit for. The movie is a true fairy tale, sketching human experiences with broad, emotional figures and events.
I enter another world when I watch THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED, the defining characteristic of my favorite movies. The film’s visual acuity is without equal; nothing is really magical in the same way that THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED is, perhaps Reiniger’s other work. But her ambitious project, which is fueled by incredible camera and warping effects on top of the groundbreaking cutout animation, is a work of a grander scale. THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED’s apparent lack of detail is quickly revealed to be a blind, with investing movement and depth plunging you into a land apart.