Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the first full-length animated film in cinema history, yet her name remains relatively unknown among film scholars. Partly, this results from the “great man” tradition in film histories, repeatedly arguing that a few heroic males advanced film as an art form. But an equally important cause for her obscurity is Reiniger’s unique relation to the avant-garde. Unlike many of her contemporaries, who rejected traditional narrative form and content, Reiniger chose “conventional” fairy tales as the subject for most of her films. And so, film scholars have typically dismissed her the avant-garde canon.
Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, “The Storyteller,” may shed light on Reiniger’s awkward historical position. He saw the forces of modernization putting an end to storytelling; this traditional, “collectivizing” experience was giving way to isolation, through an overload of information, technology, and speed. Yet, according to Benjamin, that very loss makes “it possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing” (Illuminations, 87). Similarly, Reiniger did not see her work in film in opposition to past traditions, but a way to revitalize them, using a new form, as when she used stop-motion photography to dramatize a tale from The Arabian Nights. A modern, existential condition is visible in the construction of her silhouettes: fragmented pieces of paper bolted together at various joints, moving mechanically from frame to frame.
Many of Reiniger’s colleagues couldn’t understand her interest in fairy tales. When Walter Ruttmann, maker of Berlin, the Symphony of a Great City and animation assistant to The Adventures of Prince Achmed, once asked Reiniger why she did not make more political films, she replied, “I believe more in the truth of fairy tales than that found in the newspapers.” As Walter Benjamin explains, “No event [in the newspaper] comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling… Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it” (89). Reiniger used film to transcend such limits and investigate the connections between past and present traditions. Still, as film theorist E. Ann Kaplan and others have pointed out, the cinematic gaze tends to coincide with an imperialist one, in part because both developed around the same time.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed is no exception. The plot follows two noble heroes. Achmed is carried away by an evil African Sorcerer’s flying horse to the Wak-Wak islands. Here he meets Pari Banu, whom he wants to make his queen, but she is captured by the Sorcerer and sold to a Chinese Emperor. Meanwhile, the Sorcerer convinces Aladdin to retrieve a magic lamp, in return for a promise that Princess Dinarsade, Achmed’s sister, will fall in love with him. When Aladdin is imprisoned in a cave with the lamp, he discovers its magical powers, frees himself, and builds a castle for Dinarsade, enticing her to live with him, until the Sorcerer steals the lamp, the castle, and Dinarsade. By chance, Aladdin meets Achmed, who convinces a Witch to destroy the Sorcerer and frees Pari Banu. The castle and Dinarsade are returned, and everyone lives happily ever after.
A fear of miscegenation pervades the narrative: the primary villain is an African Sorcerer, who lustily desires powerful women and wants to sell them to Chinese Emperors. The editing that conveys this desire is nothing less than ingenious (which hardly excuses the film’s racism or its representation of women as objects of men’s barter), as when the Sorcerer attends the birthday celebration of Princess Dinarsade’s father, the Caliph. Fascinated by the Sorcerer’s flying horse, the Caliph and offers the Sorcerer anything he wants to possess it.
At the start of their exchange, the Sorcerer and Caliph appear in separate long shots, but as soon as the Caliph makes his offer, Reiniger provides a medium shot of the Sorcerer in profile. His eye craftily moves from the Caliph to the audience, suggesting that he has a devious plan in mind. This is followed by a medium shot of the Caliph’s son on horseback, listening in and leaning towards the Sorcerer as if sensing impending doom. We then cut back to the Sorcerer, whose smile exposes his crooked teeth. A second series of shots links the Sorcerer’s furtive look to Dinarsade, placing her hand to her head in fear. Here Reiniger relates both the Sorcerer’s deviousness and the plot’s mounting tension.
For all the film’s objectifications of the African Sorcerer and women, it also represents women as strong, if waiting to be romanced by stronger men. Pari Banu’s resistance to Achmed’s advances convinces him to free her. Unfortunately, she’s so moved by his decision that she renounces her kingdom and becomes his wife. Although the film is not critical of this decision, it reveals how her power as a ruler is sacrificed for his marriage bed.
The only female character who retains her power is the Witch of the Flaming Mountain. She has the stereotypical long, curved nose, jutting chin, and chaotic teeth, but she is allied with “good,” since she considers the African Sorcerer her enemy. Still, she specifically wields power in the land of immortals and not in the kingdom to be established by Achmed and Aladdin (the land of mortals is Allah’s domain).
This detail raises an interesting question: if Allah is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, where is he when all these tragic events are going down in the land of immortals? Is the film suggesting that Allah’s powers are limited, that the Witch might be banished from the land of mortals but is a necessary component for good to triumph? Is this a veiled critique of modern patriarchy’s rejection of magic and witchcraft?
Clearly, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a vital part of film history, a fact that the new DVD underlines. It includes a valuable 60-minute documentary on Reiniger that fills in many essential details about her art and life that are sorely lacking in previous film histories. It also provides both English-language subtitles for dialogue and intertitles; these are translated differently from each other, emphasizing the ambiguity at the heart of the film’s storytelling. This and other aspects of the film need to be remembered, and reintegrated into the canon.