December 6, 2001

Cornell Cinema

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So, you grew up thinking that Snow White was the oldest animated full-length film, did you? Well, Cornell Cinema is about to burst your bubble with two screenings of The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

Created in Germany in 1925 by the 23 year old avant-garde artist, Lotte Reiniger, The Adventures of Prince Achmed pre-dates Disney’s Mickey Mouse by 2 years. This film, however, does not employ the cel animation of Disney, but is a series of paper cut outs — not all that different from the techniques used on Comedy Central’s popular cartoon South Park.

And, considering that Reiniger didn’t have computers at her disposal, the advent of The Adventures of Prince Achmed is that much more amazing. At nearly 45 minutes in length, the film is an astonishing example of beautiful animation at its very simplest.

The story is a retelling of a classic Arabian story contained in A Thousand and One Arabian Nights and follows Prince Achmed as he battles a malevolent sorcerer who is intent on destroying him.

After the evil sorcerer creates a magical horse that has the ability to fly, the Caliph (Islamic spiritual leader and monarch) offers anything to purchase the horse. When the sorcerer chooses the Caliph’s daughter as his prize, Prince Achmed is compelled to defend his family from the sorcerer.

In the saga that follows, Prince Achmed meets a series of challenges, not unlike Odysseus in Homer’s Greek epic, the Odyssey. He is tempted by strange and exotic women, chased by spirits, and eventually has to confront the sorcerer who has assumed the form of a seven-headed beast. As with any good epic, Achmed is reunited with his family and with his love interest.

Though the plot may feel worn, the animation and effects that Reiniger creates are astoundingly intimate and sensual. Though the characters lack physical dimension (appearing as black silhouette against colored backgrounds) the net effect of the animation is not unlike that of a kaleidoscope. Indeed, the characters are fluid and mobile. For all of its crude techniques, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a colorful look into an animation when it was first coming into existence, a time when animation was a form of artistic expression as opposed to a form of mass entertainment.

Reiniger employed several elements of Islamic art into the film, giving western audiences a glimpse of a culture that was then still far removed from the west. The film replicates, in detail, several artistic motifs specific to the Mid East. Examples include the star patterns and geometric designs that permeate the film.

For a country that is currently facing issues of racial discrimination and religious stratification, it is fortuitous that this film should air now. The Adventures of Prince Achmed serves as a much needed reminder that Islam and the Mid East have provided the west with a great deal socially, culturally, theologically, and artistically.

A new print of the film was recently struck from the original negative in Germany and the results of the improved cinematography are impressive, revealing the intricate details of Reiniger’s original work. Though the film is silent, there is a musical accompaniment and subtitles (as the original script was in German). However, the dialogue is hardly necessary. Indeed, this film is much more about the physical representation of the story as opposed to the explicit dialogue therein.

For the two special screenings of this feature, Cornell Cinema is hosting film scholar, pianist and composer Philip Carli, who will provide life accompaniment for the film at the December 8th screening at 2:00 pm and once again at 7:30 pm.

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