“The Adventures of Prince Achmed” is the rarely-seen 1926 animated feature which is now receiving a long overdue restoration and re-release. Produced in Germany and directed by Lotte Reiniger, one of the very few women animators to achieve international recognition, “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” comes down through the years as both boldly innovative in its approach to animation yet charmingly fey in its adaptation of the ancient “Arabian Nights” tales.
Working entirely with black silhouette figures and settings, “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” is a visually stunning achievement. The film brilliantly invents a variety of remarkable characters, frightening creatures, exotic locations and challenging topographies using silhouettes, providing a unique monochromatic experience which, in its bold simplicity, puts today’s complicated digital animation to shame (the characters were made out of black cardboard and thin lead, with each limb joined by tiny wire hinges). While the film is silent, this new re-release more than makes up for the lack of dialogue with the good fortune of having the original and delightful Wolfgang Zeller musical score that accompanied its initial theatrical run.
“The Adventures of Prince Achmed” begins with a malevolent African sorcerer who creates a magical flying horse and presents it to the Caliph of old Arabia. The Caliph is eager to obtain the horse, but the sorcerer refuses the monarch’s gold. The Caliph foolishly agrees to take the horse in exchange for anything the sorcerer wants, and the magical man chooses the Princess Dinarsade. The young girl is less than pleased to be claimed by the evil sorcerer, and her brother Prince Achmed runs interference to block the sorcerer. The sorcerer then shows Prince Achmed the horse and invites him for a test flight, intentionally neglecting to provide full instructions on how to operate the horse. The prince glides the horse into flight and they soar high into the clouds…but the prince does not know how to get the horse to land. As the prince flies out of sight, the caliph has the sorcerer seized and thrown into the dungeon, but the sorcerer easily escapes his captivity.
Prince Achmed eventually figures out how to fly the horse and he lands on the island of Waq Waq. In the film’s strangest and funniest sequence, he comes upon a harem of charming girls and begins kissing everyone in sight. But the girls get violent in determining who should have claim to the handsome prince and Achmed beats a hasty retreat as the girls begin exchanging fists.
Achmed eventually finds his desired love in the beautiful Princess Peri Banu. He spirits her away on his flying horse to China, but unfortunately the sorcerer finds them and separates the lovers, trapping Achmed in a giant pit with a mighty snake while taking Peri Banu to the Chinese court. More adventures follow as Achmed searches to recover Peri Banu, enlisting the help of the hideous yet helpful Fire Witch and Aladdin and his magical lamp to fight the sorcerer and an army of evil spirits.
“The Adventures of Prince Achmed” is rich with wildly imaginative scenes, most notably when the sorcerer and Fire Witch battle in the air and water by changing into a variety of dueling creatures (scorpion versus lion, rooster versus vulture, etc.). The film also serves up a wonderfully old-fashioned sense of exotica with glorious Arabesque architecture and set designs, and even the characters’ costumes (most notably the lace gown of Princess Dinarsade and Peri Banu’s cloak of feathers) are exquisite. Unlike a great deal of the animation produced during the silent era, the film’s artwork is fluid and graceful and spiced with an intelligent sense of humor which gives it an appeal to fun-minded adults.
If the film has one sour note, however, it would come in the politically incorrect representation of the villains; the African sorcerer, especially, has the exaggerated physiognomy which bears an uncomfortable resemblance to anti-Semitic caricatures of later Nazi art.
For the record, the original camera negative and original German theatrical prints of “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” are lost. This restoration is based on a colored nitrate positive preserved in the National Film and Television Archive of the British Film Institute. Whether this film can qualify as the first animated feature is open to debate; a 1917 Argentine animated film called “The Apostle” reportedly clocked in at 60 minutes, but its claim can no longer be verified as no print of that film is believed to exist. That “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” still survives is a work of wonder equivalent to any rare treasure which Aladdin could rub out of his lamp.