It’s not exactly a fresh, revolutionary impulse to point out that women’s accomplishments have been historically swept under the rug to make room for the acknowledgment of men’s, but I can think of few better examples of that injustice in cinema than the case of Lotte Reiniger. Even as someone who regularly seeks out traditional animation, I’m just hearing of Reiniger for the first time in my 30s, when she should be just as much of a household name as Walt Disney or Hayao Miyazaki. Only preceded by a couple lost Romanian films, Reniger’s magnum opus The Adventures of Prince Achmed is considered to be the oldest surviving animated feature film. Produced over three physically taxing years on the floor of a German garage with a full crew, it’s a work not only impressive for it value as a historical landmark, but for its passionately intricate artistry. Inspired by live action shadow puppetry, Reniger invented her own style of animation involving cardboard cutout silhouettes, thin sheets of lead for shading, and a rudimentary multiplane camera. It was a method that was reasonably suited for her many experiments in short films, but proved painstakingly complex for a feature. It wouldn’t be until Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves over a decade later that another animated feature would even attempt to follow in its footsteps, as the early processes for traditional animation required phenomenal feats of labor at that length. It’s amazing that Reiniger took on that process as a D.I.Y. art project instead of a commercial enterprise, an accomplishment that isn’t as loudly or as frequently lauded as it obviously should be.
Truth be told, the narrative explored in The Adventures of Prince Achmed is not nearly as interesting as its visual form. As the title suggests, the film works as a kind of anthology of tangential adventure short stories, an attractive structure for a filmmaker looking to graduate from shorts to features. Mining Middle Eastern folktales pulled from Arabian Nights, these strung-together adventures follow the handsome, titular Prince Achmed as he confronts witches, demons, magicians, and sorcerers in an effort to rescue two damsels in distress: his sister & his beloved. There’s a fair amount of outdated politics to be expected in this silent era German film that extend far beyond sidelined women waiting to be rescued. Middle Eastern culture-gazing & offensive Jewish stereotypes also sour some of the film’s magic at the border of the frame. The anthologized approached to feature-length storytelling also becomes disruptive at a critical point in the film when a side plot involving Aladdin (yes, that Aladdin) overpowers Achmed’s foreground narrative. Still, even for all its outdated politics & structural faults as an exercise in feature-length storytelling, the film is downright intoxicating as a visual piece. Tinted color frames, intricate lacework-style cutouts, and mythical creatures like a flying horse & a gaggle of gorgeous peacock women conjure a magic far more powerful than any modern, nitpicky concerns about the story they serve. In more ways than one, this film is a testament to the transformative powers of animation. Backlit slivers of cardboard & a thin, anthologized story shouldn’t amount to anything nearly this substantial.
I’d just as much recommend reading up on Lotte Reiniger as a historical figure as I’d urge you to watch her landmark magnum opus. My public domain DVD of The Adventures of Prince Achmed included a biographical feature titled Lotte Reiniger: Homage to the Inventor of the Silhouette Film that was an especially good primer for discovering a life well-lived, if not well-enough known. Even if you’re just browsing her Wikipedia page, though, you’ll be taken aback by how such a significant artist is so blatantly absent from The Most Accomplished Auteurs of All Time conversations. Much like with stop-motion animation, her silhouette technique has a handmade quality to it where you can see the humanity behind the artistry onscreen. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a must-see for film nerds & history buffs, but what’s even more pressing is that we start including Reiniger among the names of directors who pioneered cinema as a medium. The shadow puppetry element of her work suggests a kind of old-fashioned artistry, but her advancement of traditional animation & early adoption of a multiplane camera setup position as her as a trailblazer, one whose name should be on everyone’s tongue.