Foreign Correspondunce: Whole Lotte Reiniger Goin’ On
My desire for continual amusements and visual distractions often leads me to the children’s section of my local video store. (Ireland hasn’t really copped on to the whole NetFlix phenomenon yet…yeah, I know, it’s so totally 1999 over here.) I have always liked animated films, not necessarily that latter-day Disney palp, with large breasted, heavily-coiffed bobby pins belting out ballads in a Whitney Houston manner, but rather, those animated films more akin to Watership Down (my heart, she breaks for the bunnies), or The Hobbit, or even the side-splitting hilarity of 1980’s Animalympics. Just the thought of Gilda Radner as that ostrich slays me.
So in my most recent quest to drop out of boring old reality and rest my eyes on a world more colourful, more fanciful, more, oh I don’t know, animated, I chanced upon a copy of Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 silhouette feature, The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Having a penchant for paper pretties (wallpaper, specialty gift wrap, high-end stationary) I was looking forward to a pleasant 70 or so minutes of lovely silhouettes dancing across my television screen. Once I settled in, what I got was something so much more then a passing entertainment, it was a revelation. When I die, I want heaven (or, with my record, more likely hell) to be a Reiniger set piece.
The story of Prince Achmed is cobbled together from the collected stories 1001 Arabian Nights and focuses on the Prince’s efforts to win the mysterious Princess Pari Banu’s heart, battle an evil African sorcerer, reunite his sister with Aladdin (yes, of the lamp) all while being dogged by the malevolent spirits of Wak Wak Island. You know, just another day in the life. However, the story, while fantastical, takes a back seat to the mind-blowing intricacy of Reiniger’s paper cut-outs. With a delicacy mimicking precious filigree work Reiniger creates a visual fantasia of such complexity and disorienting ornamentation repeated viewings are a must to disentangle the multi-layered scenes.
The film took 3.5 years to complete. The painstaking construction of each character, including costumes, sets, and props, was only the beginning as each movement of the cut-outs had to be meticulously photographed to create a fluid stop-motion effect. And this fluidity of motion is part of the film’s charm. Tendrils of hair, hanging vines and the hem of a dress all undulate independently of the forms they are attached to, creating a surprisingly realistic effect decades before computers simulated the same.
Filmed using colour-tinted backgrounds, the bright yellows, blues, and reds add depth to the backgrounds and heighten the drama of pivotal scenes, most notably, the Prince’s descent into the Witch’s Fiery Mountain. But for sheer beauty, I can think of few things lovelier than the Prince’s first sighting of Pari Banu. He hides while her two attendants descend from the heavens wearing flying costumes of ornate bird feathers. The Princess soon follows and the three nymphs of Wak Wak bathe in a pond against a backdrop of cool blue. The scene is one of the finest hand-crafted bits of cinema you’ll ever slap eyes on.
As imagery increasingly relies more heavily upon computers to smooth out the rough edges, or even to generate the image in its entirety, The Adventures of Prince Achmed serves as a refreshing reminder that the creation of illusion has been with us long before CG hit our local Cineplex.