The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) dir. Lotte Reiniger


0 R UMAX PL-II V1.5 [3]

It should go without saying to anyone reading this section, but let’s take a moment to appreciate what a special institution we have in the Harvard Film Archive. While the greater Boston area has no shortage of amazing independent moviehouses, the HFA is something unique: an unassuming classroom auditorium, deep in an Ivy League campus, which serves as a mask for a hulking behemoth of film knowledge and preservation. So massive is the HFA’s library, in fact, that it occasionally yields treasures that seem to surprise even its curators. It was the HFA which discovered that complete cut of The Wicker Man a few years back, and when Cambridge transplant Neil Gaiman put out a public call to track down a print of Peter Greenaway’s Drowning By Numbers to screen at the Brattle, it shouldn’t have surprised him to realize it was sitting in his own backyard. When I sit down to compile the monthly film calendar for the Boston Compass, I always make a point to peruse the HFA’s lineup; more often than not, I discover something amazing that I had never heard of before, and possibly never would have otherwise.

Such is the case with The Adventures of Prince Achmed, which screens today as a special discounted family-friendly matinee. The fact that I had never heard of this film is embarrassing to me; the fact that so many others likely haven’t either is simply depressing.

I won’t delve too deeply into the plot, both because the only version of Prince Achmed I could find featured German intertitles with no translation, and because it’s beside the point: from what I can gather, the story is a general mishmash of Arabian Nights, complete with princesses, genies, and terrifying elephant demons. What’s important is that this film, directed in 1926 by German actress-turned-animator Lotte Reiniger, is the earliest known existing animated feature film – predating Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by more than a decade.

Well, that and the fact that this film is gorgeous. In contrast to the lush rotoscopes and cuddly animals favored by Disney, Reiniger’s unique visual style borrows heavily from the shadow puppets of China, as well as the stark expressionism popular in her homeland at the time. But where the expressionists traded in dread and paranoia, Reiniger seems more interested in the exhilarating possibilities of the young medium, reminiscent of the works of Georges Melies or Winsor McCay. Reiniger’s Prince Achmed hurtles from one set piece to another, encountering demons, sorcerers, bellydancers, and a genie (the latter the only character not rendered exclusively in silhouette). The fluidity of the characters’ movements, combined with the brilliant hand-tinted colors, are positively psychedelic, long before that word came into vogue.

All of which is simply to say that The Adventures of Prince Achmed is just really, really neat. If you’re unfamiliar (as I was), check it out; it’s rare that you get to see something so breathtakingly original and profoundly influential with fresh eyes. And even if you’re up on your animation history, it’s unlikely you’ve gotten to see it like this: on 35mm, on the big screen, with live musical accompaniment by organist Robert Humphreville. Then check out the HFA’s calendar, and see how else they can blow your mind.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed)
dir. Lotte Reiniger
65 min.

Screens Saturday, 5/13, 3:00PM @ HFA
Hand-tinted 35mm print – live piano accompaniment!

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