The Adventures of Prince Achmed

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)
Prince Achmed dares to almost touch Princess Pari Banu.

Surely no woman in cinema history has required so much rescuing as Princess Pari Banu? The poor girl is kidnapped, lusted after and breathed heavily upon by every demon, monster and sorcerer between China and darkest Africa. Luckily for her she has an A-grade support team in Prince Achmed, Aladdin (plus lamp) and a powerful witch who calls a volcano home.

Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 film is the oldest surviving feature-length animation, made using the silhouette technique she devised herself. She intricately cut every character, costume and foreground from black paper, then laid them on backdrops of transparent paper on a glass table lit from underneath and shot from above. For each successive frame the characters’ hinged limbs and heads were moved millimetre or two. She also devised the story by mashing tales from 1001 Nights.

The outcome is enchanting: delicate, art-nouveau elegant, witty, ritualistic and primal. She even flirts with softest erotica. 1926? It could have been made today.

Like the music. Phillip Johnston’s long pedigree of adding live scores to silent films has led to this exceptional collaboration between sound and image. Something about the film being so flat-planed and two-dimensional allows the music to carry more equal weight in the viewer/listener’s concentration than is usually possible.

Johnston now has a sophisticated and highly personalised compositional language that nods to sources including jazz, minimalism and Frank Zappa, but fundamentally espouses his own quirky, groove-laden ideas.

For this soundtrack, beyond the live score and improvising performed by himself (soprano saxophone), James Greening (trombone) and Alister Spence and Casey Golden (keyboards), he had another score of pre-recorded music running, as well. The impact was thick with colours and bustling with rhythms. Perhaps a little of the film’s delicacy was swamped on occasion, and certainly more could have been made of the apocalyptic stoush between the witch and the extra-evil African sorcerer, but this is exceptional work that deserves many airings.