not in our stars, but in ourselves
42/52: An animated movie
If Lotte Reiniger hadn’t been a woman, working in the rapidly deteriorating Weimar Republic and eventually being forced to flee wherever else she and her husband could find in Europe (the Nazis didn’t take too kindly to leftist artsy types), one wonders how differently animation would have evolved. While The Adventures of Prince Achmed is certainly influential, revered, and beloved, it’s not all that often that you hear about Reiniger herself, or that you see similar flights of fancy in mainstream animated film. I don’t want to get too political, though, I promise. Prince Achmed is such a delightful, lovely little thing that I wish had led to more movies like it. Reiniger did have quite a prolific career, but alas – relatively few of her films are accessible, at least as far as I can tell. A shame, but that’s the luck of the cinematic draw: some geniuses are born in the right time and place, and their work is carefully preserved and idolized; some are born in soon-to-be-war-torn countries where their phenomenal works of art were destroyed in a blitz. But at least we have Achmed.
It’s a simple enough tale, based on stories from One Thousand and One Nights. A wicked African magician conjures up a flying horse, and takes it to the Caliph in a different country. The Caliph wants to buy the horse, but the magician says he won’t part with the enchanted animal for any sum of money. When the Caliph offers any treasure in his kingdom, the magician says he’ll take Princess Dinarsade as his wife, thank you very much. Prince Achmed, son of the Caliph and sister of Dinarsade, intervenes. He wants to take the horse out for a spin – and he does. The Caliph arrests the magician, while Achmed soars up and up and up. When he finally figures out how to make the horse descend back to earth, he finds himself on Wak Wak – a magical island full of beautiful women. The most beautiful of all is Peri Banu, ruler of Wak Wak. Achmed watches, enthralled, as she and her attendants fly to a moonlit lake to bathe. He whisks her away on his horse to China (because why not?) and tells her that he loves her. She’s understandably upset at having been brought all the way to China – but eventually decides she loves him, too. Meanwhile, the magician has cast himself right out of jail and off to Achmed’s whereabouts. He steals Peri Banu and tries to get the Emperor of China to buy her. She’s not into it. The magician leaves her, intending to get rid of Achmed. He pins the prince to the top of a volcano – but a witch happens to live in that volcano, and she happens to hate the magician’s guts. She vows to help Achmed however she can. They rescue Peri Banu from the Emperor – but then the demons of Wak Wak steal her away. During a terribly involved battle, Achmed finds and saves Aladdin; fights some demons; briefly liberates Peri Banu; stands aside so that the witch can fight the magician; lets her use Aladdin’s lamp to summon creatures to defeat the demons of Wak Wak; and finally lives happily ever after.
There’s a lot to love in Prince Achmed, but let’s start with the animation itself. It’s gorgeous. Reiniger fashioned little silhouette puppets for each character (and their many transformations), and rigged up a complicated animation camera/table to capture all the action at 24 frames per second (a rate that wasn’t yet standard in filmmaking when she began work in 1923 and finished in 1926; not until the late 1920s and talkies did 24 fps become the only possible rate of frames per second). Walter Ruttmann, the director of Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, collaborated with her on the dreamy background images. The result is breathtaking – and, quite visibly, the work of a small handful of artists, rather than a suite of animators. There’s nothing wrong with the latter approach, but Achmed is all the more impressive for its near-DIY production. Animation is a hard, labor-intensive way to make a movie, no matter what; when the personnel consists of a woman, her husband, and a couple of her artist friends – and when the end product is this intricate and beautiful – it’s all that much more impressive.
What I really loved about Prince Achmed was its balletic quality. You could argue – and I have – that silent cinema has much in common with ballet. It’s especially evident here, however. Reiniger described how intimately bound up with each other were the music and the movement:
The synchronization between sight and sound is secured by carefully measuring the sound track, and preparing a very exactly worked out scenario, in which the number of shots are calculated according to the musical value. These calculations are the basis for the picture, which is then painstakingly photographed.
For those of you who aren’t familiar: this is very similar to how ballets are commissioned. Of course choreographers might take a pre-existing piece of music and work out a dance to go with it, but in the cases of original works, the composer and the choreographer usually work together very closely. Some composers, like Stravinsky, were able to assert themselves over their Fokines or their Nijinskys; some, like Tchaikovsky, wrote music according to the dictates of their Petipas. Reiniger (who sounds like she was a class act all her life) worked gratefully and cooperatively with composer Wolfgang Zeller. As a result, the music fits the movement; the movement fits the music; and it all feels like a rapturous night at the ballet.
I’m thinking especially of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, you understand. This is due as much to the ornate, lyrical quality of the film itself – as if it were a cousin of Scheherazade or The Firebird – as to the exoticism running throughout. Exoticism isn’t the most culturally sensitive way to present another part of the world, and I don’t seek to defend any of the less-than-P.C. aspects of Prince Achmed (the Emperor of China is especially cringe-worthy) – but it’s another trait that this film shares with some of the best known ballets. In Tchaikovsky’s three big ballets – The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake – there are divertissements featuring music and dancing in the style of some far-flung country. Diaghilev specifically wanted to present a “myth of exoticized Russia” in The Firebird, because he knew Parisians would gobble it up. These stereotypes, even fetishizations, of Other people’s music and dance, aren’t the most culturally sensitive; and I don’t mean to suggest that they’re unproblematic; but they’re part of the work. In Reiniger’s case, I think her elaborate treatment of Achmed’s travels and the people he encounters comes from a place of deep affection and enchantment. It certainly feels like the film was made with buckets and buckets of love poured into it – for every aspect, from the story to the silhouettes.
The short version: The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a dazzlingly inventive, visually rapturous piece of animation. It’s a ballet. It’s a poem. It’s a wonderful, old-fashioned (in good ways and less-good ways) work of art by a phenomenally talented, hard-working woman – and you should see it.