tuesday, march 31, 2009
I wrote the following informal thing for my “Europe’s Vision of the Orient” class in fall quarter, and it might be interesting to people who have watched The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger (1926): “a pioneer feature-length animated film…a brilliant feature, a wonderful film full of charming comedy, lyrical romance, vigorous and exciting battles, eerie magic, and truly sinister, frightening evil” (says William Moritz). This is out on DVD with a press kit containing some good articles (PDF).
Update (April 3): There’s a review from 2002 that considers the women and stereotypes in the story.
Most of the existing writing about The Adventures of Prince Achmed just admires the film’s aesthetic and technical achievement, but this work also has an interesting place in the history of interpretations of the Thousand and One Nights. The animation is full of traditional Orientalist (pretty much racist) motifs too, but people still watch it for fun, probably conscious of the illustrated stereotypes but not concerned about them. These motifs seem unsurprising on a screen, partly because “most people today who have an image of the Nights or think that they know about the Nights derive that image and that knowledge from films” (page 225 of Robert Irwin’s great article A Thousand and One Nights at the Movies from 2004; reading it requires your university library’s subscription to Middle Eastern Literatures).
Prince Achmed is appealing because it matches an unusual technique to an exotic subject. The elaborateness of Reiniger’s cutouts produces a sense of the otherworldly, erotic, and extravagant — in other words, making a Thousand and One Nights story was a good opportunity for Reiniger to display her virtuoso skills in ways that didn’t make as much sense for an animation of Jack and the Beanstalk. Talking about Thousand and One Nights movies in general, Irwin refers to a “visual clutter of oriental knick-knacks” that “can be put to any purpose” (225), and Reiniger makes use of them. This styling helps reinforce the idea that the Orient is a place of strangeness and excess, which is part of how European (and European-influenced) popular culture maintains the “other” status of the Thousand and One Nights while its stories have been significant and integrated within European art and literature for hundreds of years.
Like Reiniger, artists in the 19th century reached to the Orient to add variety and interest to their art; they produced lots of paintings of imaginary half-dressed harem girls, which were somehow more suitable for polite company than paintings of half-dressed European girls.
Expressionist films…were ostentatiously designed films, which made great play with play of light against dark and the use of landscape and architecture to symbolise or express in a stylised fashion Man’s inner states…preoccupied with Fate and with the monstrous and the supernatural. It is easy to see how well this essentially German subject matter could be married to the stories of the Thousand and One Nights. (226)
Irwin mentions Prince Achmed explicitly when talking about Thousand and One Nights movies as “a showcase for special effects…think of the marvellously animated and delicate silhouettes created by Lotte Reiniger…this sort of film work is, in effect, using magic to create stories that are about magic” (231). In What the Shadow Knows: Race, Image, and Meaning in Shadows (1922), Alice Maurice analyzes a very different movie but has a useful interpretation of silhouettes: “can be distilled into the two categories most at odds in Shadows: elusive or illusory phantasms on the one hand, and immediately legible expressions of hidden truths on the other” (72). Maurice also notes that restaged Chinese shadow plays were popular in the United States in the 1920s (69), which would have reinforced Reiniger’s animation of an Oriental story.
Reiniger based her film’s plot on stories from a sanitized translation of the Thousand and One Nights for children, Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book (according to Wikipedia), but she still included a lot of sexy parts, like the harem scene in the still above, and violence. This follows in the tradition of Thousand and One Nights translators modifying and reinterpreting the stories at will for different audiences. Reiniger’s audience seems to be mostly adults, but the story uses a lot of terrible stereotyped characters, common in children’s literature: the African witch, the Chinese despot, and a couple of delicate and mysterious Arabian beauties. Plus the love story has the princess resisting the prince but very quickly giving in. Irwin has something to say about that too: “Medieval Arab storytellers were always happy to include strong, bold and even violent female protagonists…[In modern Western films] the beautiful girl is at best a sidekick, but essentially she is man’s reward for coming through all those dangerous adventures” (228).
Reiniger maintains the recursive aspect of the narrative, putting a few stories within stories, but that’s not central to her retelling. This version of the Thousand and One Nights provides no outer frame story, so Reiniger acts as a kind of Scheherazade: a talented female storyteller, directing the team that produced the story. She doesn’t tell this story to actually save her life, but her work has kept her memory alive among people who appreciate film and especially animation, and at least somewhat among people who are interested in the history of the Thousand and One Nights.