By Cleaver Patterson.
Watching the work of German animator Lotte Reiniger, one thing is clear above all else: the magical shadow plays, which were her favorite medium, are perfectly suited to a world of fantasy and make-believe, as seen in her masterpiece The Adventures of Prince Achmed, newly released by the BFI on DVD and Blu-ray. Indeed, this Arabian tale of daring princes, beautiful princesses and wicked magicians forms the perfect basis to capture the magical essence that makes Reinger’s groundbreaking work as bewitching today as it was when first released almost a century ago.
In a tale from the Arabian Nights, the fearless Prince Achmed sets out to rescue his sister Dinarsade, who has been tricked into marriage by the wicked sorcerer Zauberer. Taken by a magical horse from his home in Baghdad to the enchanted isle Wak-Wak, he meets and falls in love with the exotic maiden Pari Banu. Achmed then travels to various exotic lands encountering the mysterious young man Aladdin, an army of frightful demons, and a hideous but kind witch who helps him in his final confrontation with Zauberer—before things finally finish with everyone meeting the end they deserve, both happy and otherwise.
Amongst the qualities that Reinger’s work shares with that of the best animators, and which makes them universally appealing, is a timelessness that speaks to audiences of all ages. Everyone understands and recognizes the elements of stories such as The Adventures of Prince Achmed, which are common to tales from all over the world; with its characters of princes and princesses, wizards, witches and demons, worked around the age old battle between good and evil, it makes the perfect basis for a silent film in which minimal explanatory voice-overs and segment captions are required to guide the viewer on the fantastical journeys it depicts on the screen. In this particular case, the viewer is led to exotic, faraway lands where the use of magic is an everyday occurrence and encounters with fantastical monsters are considered part of the norm.
However, more than the stories themselves or even the way they are interpreted, it is the form of animation used to bring them alive on screen which is surely the most enchanting aspect Reinger’s work. The shadow play medium which she used, with a stark style sometimes bordering on the sinister, is a form of animation perfectly suited to the otherworldliness of the magical tales it is often used to illuminate. Similar to the style of one of the medium’s other most famous practitioners—the artist and illustrator Jan Pieńkowski, whose work frequently focuses on fantastical tales of the imagination—there is something about the intricate black, cutout silhouettes juxtaposed against vibrantly colored backgrounds through which lights are shone from beneath, that captures the exoticism and mystery intrinsic to the rich and elaborate settings of so many legends and fairy tales.
It seems Reiniger’s skill for shadow-plays (also known as shadow-puppetry), an art form particularly popular in Far Eastern countries like China and Indonesia, was something she acquired early in life. Born into a cultured Berlin family in 1899, she learnt as a child to cut silhouettes from paper, creating her own homemade shadow theaters, a talent she later adapted for the cinema screen to great acclaim. Though The Adventures of Prince Achmed brought her universal praise and was to mark her out as a pioneer amongst early animators, it turned out to be her only full-length feature. Instead, in a career which spanned sixty years, Reiniger specialized in short films, as well as animated sequences for inclusion in other people’s work, examples of which are also included on this BFI release. Gems like those based on author Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle adventures, as well as the Bible parable of The Prodigal Son and the story surrounding Christ’s birth, again show how well Reiniger’s favored form of animation is suited to tales with a mysterious air, whilst The Secret of the Marquise—a two minute advert in the style of a European fairy tale made for Nivea Soap and Cream—is an exquisite piece of whimsy, unique because this time the figures are cut from white paper instead of black.
The BFI has again continued its invaluable work in rescuing the films of one of animation’s greatest practitioners, bringing it alive again for a whole new generation of film lovers.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.
Lotte Reiniger’s animated classic The Adventures of Prince Achmed was released in the UK on a Dual Format DVD and Blu-ray edition on 19th August, 2013. Presented in both High and Standard Definition, the film is accompanied by a newly recorded alternative narration based on Reiniger’s own translation of her German text Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed, spoken by the actress Penelope McGhie, along with an original orchestral score by Wolfgang Zeller. Also on the discs are the short films The Adventures of Dr Dolittle, The Flying Coffer, The Secret of the Marquise, The Lost Son and The Star of Bethlehem, all complemented by a fully illustrated booklet of essays from Jez Stewart and Philip Kemp, along with a contribution by historian Marina Warner.