When browsing Seattle's rich calendar of independent and art film screenings, one might be inclined to skip over the 4th Annual Children's Film Festival, hosted January 23-February 1 at the Northwest Film Forum. Had I done so, however, I would have missed one of the season's stellar film events: The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Reiniger, Germany, 1926), shown with a new live score by local duo Miles and Karina. This jewel in the festival's crown is possessed with a rare sophistication and delicacy, suitable for viewers of all ages. (Sorry, folks—Achmed's run is done, but do check out the rest of the festival - who knows what you might turn up?)
Reportedly the first ever full-length animated film, Prince Achmed is a wonder of craft. The silhouette animation—a technique invented by 23 year-old director Lotte Reiniger—includes over 300,000 paper cut-outs, and was three years in the making. Arabian Nights stories unfold over the course of 67 minutes, told by means of Reiniger's lovely silhouettes and screen paintings. Amber, red, blue, green, yellow and straw backgrounds highlight the black figures of protagonists Achmed, Dinarsade, Aladdin, Pari Banu, an evil sorcerer, and his mortal enemy, an otherworldly witch who ultimately proves the film's unlikely heroine and deus-ex-machina.
Caring detail extends even to the German intertitles, printed in Arabian-style font over a background of stars and diamonds.
The plot, surrounding Prince Achmed's family and foes, is positively Shakespearean: Five acts, two love stories, and nested narratives. Achmed has to defeat an evil sorcerer to save his sister (Dinarsade) and win his love (Pari Banu). Along the way, he teams up with Aladdin (who's hot for Dinarsade) and an immortal witch, who ultimately saves the two young heroes by battling the sorcerer to the death. In the end, the two happy couples are united in the home of Achmed's father, the Caliph, and all are called to morning prayer.
Although the original orchestral score by Wolfgang Zeller survived the Second World War with the film, NWFF chose to support local arts by commissioning Miles and Karina (David Keenan and Nova Devonie) to score the work with instruments ranging from banjo to glockenspiel to mixing bowl. The artists, who played live at Sunday's screening, said they "hoped to have captured a tiny bit of the film's magic" – and indeed, they succeeded. The tone of the music, including humorous effects like the crinkly sound of the witch scratching her spiny back, complements perfectly the film's playful melancholy. It proves that even so-called "silent" films are of a medium as much aural as visual.
In terms of craft, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a product of its time. Created between giants of film history like Nosferatu (Murnau, Germany, 1922) and Metropolis (Lang, Germany, 1927), it is a remnant from an era when German cinema reigned supreme in the court of international film. Reiniger's figures reveal her artistic lineage; the naked form of Pari Banu reminded me strongly of women featured in Gustav Klimt's Beethoven Frieze adorning theViennese Sezessionsgebäude. The only women in a company of men, Reiniger was supported by an artist's collective typical for that period, which included her husband and collaborator Carl Koch (DP on Achmed).
In spirit, too, Prince Achmed hearkens back to a different time. In 1926, film was a way for people to travel, and flight was a magical act – not something anyone could engage in by purchasing a plane ticket. Even the film's orientalism is charming, rooted as it is in a deep curiosity about all things foreign. Yes, it's also rooted in ignorance and condescension, but there was innocent wonder to it as well. It is precisely this innocence that makes the film most touching in our current climate of international strife and cultural bigotry. In Reiniger's film, when Allah is invoked as a protective force and the tale ends as the happy protagonists are called to morning prayer, it reminds us that once, our primary associations with the Arab world were stories of magic and gallantry, love and honor, and unparalleled adventure.
More information on the history of Prince Achmed, including its restoration, can be read here.
And even though Prince Achmed has come and gone, there's plenty of independent cinema worth seeing around town this week. You'll find FilmNerd herself at SIFF Cinema this Friday for the opening of Shoot the Piano Player (Truffaut, France, 1960), which will run until next Thursday to round off the French Crime Wave series.