So I finally got to see Lotte Reininger’s shadow-puppet animation THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED on the big screen, thanks to the wondrous Shona Thomson, organizer of the tour it’s just been on — this 90-year-old German silent has been all around Scotland, accompanied by improvisatory acoustic combo Sink, playing to packed houses. I failed to crowbar myself into the screening at Filmhouse, so popular was it, but Shona got me a comp for beloved Bo’ness, the final stop on the tour.
“No, not the Flooby Monster!”
The plot is glorious nonsense, seeming as improvised as the score, and less organized, despite the time-consuming nature of animation. Reininger evidently aspired to script as quickly as she could scissor a cut-out character, and the result has the chaotic, freewheeling, logic-free quality of authentic folkd tale/myth, even though virtually nothing is actually taken from The Thousand and One Nights. Aladdin and his lamp feature, but are conflated with Ali Baba’s cave and a number of other things. My favourite aspect of the flaky structure was the long flashback (The Arabian Nights is full of nested narratives within narratives, it’s like Cloud Atlas written by an army of monkeys) in which Aladin (sic) recounts how he got from being some poor schmoe in Baghdad to having a palace and living with a princess, to losing everything and becoming a poor schmoe in China, being attacked by a flooby monster (I call it that: it doesn’t have a name in the film. I suppose it would be ein floobenmonster in the original German). This saga is embedded within Achmed’s own adventure, happening in parallel with it, but seems to cover weeks of time at the very least, whereas Achmed’s story appears to unfold within a single day. I love this. It’s the most impossible thing in a story containing demons, spirits and a mechanical flying horse, but it’s hidden in plain sight.
All I knew about Lotte R. is that she made this kind of thing. Turns out she made it by sawing a hole in her best dining table. But I did know a little about Oskar Fischinger, who worked with melted and reformed wax — though he has no credit on the film, I wondered if he was somehow involved, as the bubbly, globular magic performed by the sinister African sorcerer looks very Fischingeresque. There are also great effects with shadowy shapes, identifiable as the work of credited collaborator Walter Ruttmann, who created similar effects for Fritz Lang.
To begin with, Achmed’s adventures seem rather sex-obsessed. The sorcerer fancies his sister, so gets rid of Achmed with his flying horse. Achmed lands, with some difficulty, in the Wak Wak Islands, where all the girls are crazy about him. There’s a long kissy sequence which slowly and hilariously transforms into a riot as the girls can’t get enough of each other and start fighting each other and wrecking the cut-out scenery. Very Weimar moment where to girls lunge at once and he ducks and they’re surprised to find themselves kissing one another.
Audience members reported being enchanted by the tiny rippling reflections in the water.
Escaping the hot-tempered maidens, Achmed then peeps at the Princess Pari Banu and her maidservants bathing, and steals the princess’s feathered bird-of-paradise costume so he can abduct her naked. But then he wins her heart by letting her have clothes after all. This is the end – almost – of the sex part of the film. The rest is mostly violence, except for when Achmed rescues Pari Banu (the English subtitles persistently called her Peri Banu, an act of imperialism almost as bad as Achmed’s own) from the fiendish Chinese, and immediately takes her to bed. This is pretty sudden: they’re still in China, surrounded by enemies. But I guess he’s waited long enough.
(Once, researching puppetry for a project, I found a book which had a whole chapter on eroticism. Every single image was appallingly creepy. It seems that puppetry, using as it does human movement, like dance, is well-suited to evoking sex, but because it uses surrogates, the result is always going to be really freaky and wrong. Animation, which does not use human movement, and in a way does not depict real movement at all, is further removed from reality and somehow becomes less weird and pervy. So ACHMED can be full of intimations of hot puppet sex without making you worry about what the puppets smell like.)
I loved the use of shallow focus: pre-anime!
Demons versus spirits! Witch versus sorcerer! The final parts of the film feature multiple decapitations and mayhem, with Achmed’s scimitar despatching his opponents almost as fast as Reininger’s scissors can create them. If you’re a little worried, as I was, by the travesty of African and Chinese villains, you can take comfort in the fact that all the characters are ethnic, with Aladin in particular having a very beautiful Arabic quality in profile, without being caricatured. I guess in a story like this, the Arab characters are stand-ins for the presumed white audience, but at least they’re allowed to look Middle-Eastern. It’s not like casting Dale Robertson as Sinbad Jnr.
Sink’s music complimented the magic show beautifully — landing squarely in the mysterious Central Zone between right-but-obvious on one extreme and distractingly-wrong on the other, the accompaniment was always spot-on but in ways you couldn’t define or explain. The trio don’t always even look at the screen, apparently, but play an assortment of instruments, including the proverbial kitchen sink as part of the percussion. If you could tear your eyes from the screen you could catch the saxophonist ringing bells with his feet. I was wondering how the kids in the audience — and there were several — would react, but they were good as gold, and they got to play with the instruments at the end, which may possibly have been the most magical part of the evening for them. Oh, and there was a microphone with some weird echoing special effects on it, the one non-acoustic element of the score. I kind of wish I’d had a go on that, but I did ring a foot-bell.
From Gerald Kersh’s short story The Musicians, which I was reading just before the show started:
The second saxophonist played without moving his body. He was a long, lachrymose man, but as his fingers ran over the keys, complicated as the controls of a submarine, his eyelids drooped, his cheeks fell in, and something like a sleepy smile curved the corners of his mouth, as if he was sucking sweet nourishment out of the reed. […]
The drummer brandished strange weapons. He tickled the parchment with wire, and it laughed; rapped it with sticks, and it muttered; beat it with a club, and it groaned; while the man’s face, distorted as with rage, writhed and grimaced, and a queer fleck of golden light reflected from one of the cymbals fluttered around his mouth and forehead.
But Willie seemed to sit above it all. I watched his face. It expressed the mildest kind of astonishment. He held his violin, richly coloured like smoked fish, and glanced with a kind of dismay at his left hand, which, leaping out of his cuff, was running wild on the strings.