Several months ago I had heard of a unique curiosity from the early days of animation. Made exactly nine decades ago, it has the honour of being one of the oldest films I could find (the oldest being Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror), and in all honesty, I found it to be a very enjoyable, if rather cryptic piece of animation history.
Given that it’s one of those silent films from the 20’s, there’s pretty much no speaking, and so the film’s primary method of conveying the story is the art of visual communication, and through intertitles. Of course, the intertitles are all in German, so unless you can read German, you pretty much have to watch the events unfold on their own.
From what I know, the story is loosely based on elements of One Thousand and One Nights (and another story “The Story of Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Paribanou”), and from what I can tell, it sees the main character, Prince Achmed, on a quest to save his sister from a devious sorcerer, and meets a beautiful queen named Pari Banu, who also abducted by the sorcerer, and rescued by Prince Achmed, with the aid of Aladdin and the witch of a flaming mountain.
It’s all a very imaginative story that, strangely enough, manages to express itself without the need of words, but this has more to do with the technique of animation (which I’ll discuss later), rather than the actual plot. I also notice that the story is divided into five acts, and though they share the same aesthetic style and all follow a linear plot, somehow they all have their own charm that I can’t exactly explain. The film itself is around 65 minutes long, but somehow, that’s just fine.
Let’s talk about the style of animation the film employs. The film was written, directed and animated by Lotte Reiniger, a film director who pioneered the technique of silhouette animation, which is a kind of stop-motion animation that involves manipulating cutout characters and objects made out of cardboard and sheets of lead under a camera. It’s a bit like shadow puppetry, only the figures are moved frame by frame. It is one of the earliest examples of stop motion animation, and it also has the distinction of being the oldest surviving animated film in history (others were made but are apparently lost).
This kind of technique, though the film itself looks visibly dated in some parts, really brings the story and characters to life, and the film’s Arabesque art style matches it in quite an incredible way, and it’s made all the more striking by the fact that the film only uses two colours at a time. Sometimes the background colour changes, but the figures are always silhouettes, and thus remain black. The film is also backed by a whimsical orchestral score. I should point out that, when originally released, it had a different musical score, but the DVD release uses a new score, conducted I believe by a man known as K. Leikenbroecker. I felt the score accompanied the film quite well, and it especially worked with the animation style.
Overall, while it might not seem very substantive compared to modern films, it’s worth watching to see a work of animation unlike any other before or since, and it has certain qualities that make it very entertaining on its own.
- Score: 77%
- Grade: B