Gewaltig Gar Die Macht: The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1929)

This marks a rather unusual occasion in that I have decided to lift a German quote directly into my post title, as opposed to usually finding its closest English translation, or borrowing from the subtitles. I am doing so for two specific reasons, Gewaltig gar die Macht, roughly translates to "make even the mighty," which carries weight, but does not flow as well as its Germanic counter, and secondly because the title cards for The Adventures of Prince Achmed are as integral to the narrative of Lotte Reiniger's silhouetted 1929 animated film.  Reiniger, a woman filmmaker, manages to create a world so awe-inspiring and delightfully captivating that I cannot describe in in any sense of singularity, instead; finding myself pulling upon various points of comparison, whether it to compare the magical quality of the film to the rarified work of George Melies, or to acknowledge the sense of scale in The Adventures of Prince Achmed that moves between the intimate and the grand in a manner evocative of a D.W. Griffith film.  Once could find themselves regarding a work like The Adventures of Prince Achmed a bit flippantly since it does incorporate a rather basic animation style by contemporary standards.  Reiniger's film, however, is anything but simplistic, the movement of her figures, the scratching and altering of the film strip and intricate detail provided to each silhouette is nothing short of genius.  When I made note of this film on Facebook I had a friend in great earnest link a similarly visual work that was made entirely in CGI.  While, I noted it being a stunning work in its own right, I also countered the post by suggesting that were Reiniger still alive making films, her work would flourish in a world of CGI, perhaps pushing it to the farthest boundaries possible, beyond the calculated wackiness of a Tim Burton film, beyond the multiple layers of the dream state that consume the world of a Satoshi Kon film.  Indeed, I would be most inclined to compare it to the visual world of Rene Laloux's Fantastic Planet, but even that description betrays the simultaneously audacious and simplistic execution of The Adventures of Prince Achmed.  Again this was made nearly a century ago and it could "make even the mighty" visions of Pixar animated shorts seem tame and run-of-the-mill.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed pulls its narrative almost exclusively from the mesmerizing, exotic world of the Arabian folk tales 1001 Nights.  The narrative here specifically focuses on the title character of Prince Achmed who must recruit the help of many individuals to conquer a trouble some sorcerer in the land of Wak-Wak.  This means seeking aid in the thief Aladdin, who possesses a powerful magic lantern that will help to deter the attacks of demons and other beasts which Achmed encounters along the way, similarly, Achmed must make use of a magical horse, who possesses a lever that allows it to fly, thus affording Achmed a considerable advantage over a group the evil Witch of Fiery Mountain and her deluge of magma monsters. All the while, Achmed endeavors to marrying the entrancing Pari Banu, a princess of relative status.  Realizing, as well, that he has grown to trust and admire Aladdin, Achmed approves of Aladdin's marriage to Dinarsade, Achmed's own sister.  It is also worth noting that Achmed is, as the title suggests a prince, working under the guidelines and hopes of his father Caliph who rules over the Arabian lands, sending Achmed to the land of Wak-Wak, both as a pseudo-coming of age quest, as well as one of political advancement, on the part of Caliph's own kingdom.  After a series of intense evolutions and alterations on the part of the witch and the sorcerer in Wak-Wak, Achmed is able to fell the rivals and claim supremacy for his father, returning along with Aladdin, Pari Banu and Dinarsade to Caliph's kingdom to revel in their new marriages, as well as enjoy a land free of the threat from any insurgencies.

I realize that the plot description for this film is really short and much of what I provided was either presumptive of a cultural awareness of 1001 Nights through Disney films, as well as what narrative plot holes one can fill between general plot cards provided in the film.  However, there is also another element worth consideration when looking specifically at The Adventures of Prince Achmed.  Much like, Eric von Stroheim's masterpiece Greed, The Adventures of Prince Achmed suffers from having sections of it removed or lost due to editing, nitrate fires and general mismanagement of the fragility of film.  Indeed, the version I watched, currently on rotation for MUBI, was only sixty-five minutes long, leaving roughly fifteen minutes unaccounted for, which could have been an entire extra act considering the amount of time afforded each event in this film.  I say all of this to also acknowledge that at no point does the lack of a portion of the narrative, or the general simplicity of the plot deny The Adventures of Prince Achmed any degree of importance or heightened sense of meaning. In fact, for a film made in 1929, which pulls from an even older text, the film is rather optimistic in notions of class relations, suggesting that in the right circumstances and given a shared interest class can be transcended and friends can be made out of even the most unlikely of combinations, in this case the relationship of friendship between Aladdin and Achmed or the love between Aladdin and Dinarsade.  It is tragic that such things only seem possible in elements of lore, and animated ones at that, indeed, it is interesting to place this in opposition to the far less socially aware work like Disney's Aladdin, where a over zealous "up from the bootstraps" narrative, suggest that class can be transcended purely by wishful thinking or blind ambition.  The Adventures of Prince Achmed is clever in clearly denoting a class difference, but also suggesting that such difference need not be divisive.  Sure, there are sections of this film that could be considered racist by contemporary standards, particularly the association with the Wak-Wak as a primitive African tribe, although such movements were quite prevalent in art of the twenties and thirties, but I would allow for a certain degree of cultural relativism to work in this context.  Again, in comparison to Disney's Aladdin made some sixty years later, in a purportedly post-racial society, it seeps with racialized performances, offensive to all nationalities depicted, as well as a few who have no logical connection to the world of the Middle East.

Key Scene:  There is a sequence where Aladdin descends into a cave that is one of the least involved of segments in the film, yet, it manages to be captivating in the void it creates, allowing viewers to feel as though the cave is truly a bottomless thing.  

I watched this on MUBI and it looked stunning, there are also DVD versions available on Amazon.  I, however, have opted to nab up the BFI bluray, since I now have a region-free bluray player.  Once this is in my possession, I will revisit this film and try to remember to return to this post to provide an aside on how it looks in HD.

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