It took three years and more than 3,000 still frames to come together and now The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the world’s first and oldest known full-length animated film, is being shown in the UAE as part of the Fairy Tale Weeks festival.
It is the perfect fairy tale, with a prince, a princess, an evil magician and a mischievous witch.
Against a vibrant, multi-layered background of colours and figures, Prince Achmed (now commonly spelled Ahmed) soars through the skies on a magical horse, visits strange lands, rescues a damsel in distress and battles demons and monsters – all for the sake of love and honour.
“I shall serve you to my death,” the prince vows, while trying to woo the beautiful Princess Pari Banu after kidnapping her from the magical Wak Wak island.
Prince Achmed is handsome and captivating, his expressions and emotions reaching out from beyond the screen, despite being just a black cut-out in an animated silent film of intricate silhouettes.
Making its debut in Germany on September 23, 1926, the world’s first and oldest known surviving full-length animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, is being shown in the UAE as part of a Fairy Tale Weeks festival featuring different screenings of fairy-tale films organised by the Goethe-Institut Gulf Region.
“It is simply enchanting. We chose this film as we felt that the audiences in the UAE would connect with the story and its Arabian hero, Prince Achmed,” says Susanne Sporrer, the director at the institute. “It is a very special film, not just for German film history, but for the history of film globally.”
Ranked No 1 last year on a list of “25 All Time Best Animated Films” by Time magazine, the film that took three years and more than 3,000 still frames to come together was inspired by tales from the timeless Arabian Nights. Famous characters such as Aladdin and his magic lamp make an appearance and befriends Prince Achmed in one of the acts of the film.
First published in English in 1706 as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment and later known simply as Arabian Nights, they are a collection of West and South Asian tales dating back to the 9th-century that were compiled during the Islamic Golden Age. Their origins obscure and elusive, these old stories relate the tale of a Persian king who, after being betrayed by his wife, would marry a new bride every day and have her killed the following morning to avoid being humiliated ever again by his wife’s infidelity. But when he marries Scheherazade she keeps postponing her own death by never finishing her story. This went on for 1,001 nights.
Some of these legendary Arabian characters and the set were hand-cut by the pioneer animator Lotte Reiniger, who left her mark as both a female filmmaker – at a time when it was dominated by males – and as the inventor of silhouette films.
Born in Berlin-Charlottenburg, part of the German Empire, on June 2, 1899, Reiniger was inspired by Chinese silhouette puppetry and worked with her film partner and husband Carl Koch, a creative and technical producer, on bringing to life in film her own version of silhouette puppetry.
Besides its mesmerising visuals and enthralling storyline, the classic film is getting a special treatment in UAE with live music by the ensemble KlangEssenz, playing to the scenes in the silent film.
“The musicians have seen and studied the film, and will be playing musical pieces that will have the greatest dramatic effect on its listeners. We take it for granted the power of background music in films,” says Ms Sporrer.
The five young musicians are members of the renowned Philharmonic Orchestra of Jena, and perform classic and contemporary music in Germany and abroad. The German composer, Wolfgang Zeller, composed the original accompanying score to the film.
The first screening of the silent animation with musicians playing in the background took place in Dubai last night at The Fridge in Al Quoz. The other live screening will be tonight in Abu Dhabi at Abu Dhabi Theatre on Breakwater Island at 8.
“It is rare for any silent films to be played here, and even more rare for live music to be played in synchrony with the action in the film,” she says.
With interest in animated films rising among Emiratis, the organisers felt the film would be of particular interest to view from the technical and cultural aspects.
“We wanted it to be a magical night, where our inner child gets reawakened with the adventures of Prince Achmed and then the other fairy tales that will be shown at our institute in Dubai and Abu Dhabi,” Ms Sporrer says.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed is “the kick off” for another timeless collection of legendary tales.
“It is the 200-year anniversary since the first volume of Brothers Grimm collected tales, so we will be celebrating our fairy-tale heritage by showcasing some of the famous and less-known tales through German films with English subtitles that are not easily available in the mainstream film market,” Ms Sporrer says.
Brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm published the first volume of world-beloved fairy tales in time for Christmas in 1812.
During the next 45 years, the brothers added several new issues, where they included new tales and revised or replaced others to make them more suitable for children.
Revived every generation in print, film and animation form, the first Grimm fairy tale to make it on the big screen was Mother Holle, a silent picture movie in 1906.
Many well-known and beloved fairy tales, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Frog Prince, Rapunzel, and Hansel and Gretel, originated from Germany, says Ms Sporrer.
From princesses to princes, magical animals, ogres and dwarfs and various spells to be broken, anyone with interest in fairy tales is being invited by the Goethe Insitut to indulge in childhood memories and explore fairy-tale classics.
“People have a special connection to fairy tales. They are like a universal language, connecting cultures and generations,” Ms Sporrer says. “The oral heritage is particularly important in Arab cultures like the UAE.”
* The Adventures of Prince Achmed will be screened tonight for free at the Abu Dhabi Theatre on Breakwater Island at 8pm. For more information, visit Goethe-Institut's website or call 02 672 7920.