This being the second of two new reviews of 1926 films for the National Cinemas month on German Cinema (replacing a much longer essay I had planned to finish the month off with, but since it has been many months since September now I decided to formally use that essay for another purpose and not align it with the National Cinemas project, which I can now put to rest).
So yes, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was not the first animated feature length release. That title is usually claimed a full eleven years earlier by a Lette Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed, but even here we find ourselves in murky waters. At least two other full length animated features are known to have existed and since been lost to the briny depths of film history, so in truth, neither Snow White nor The Adventures of Prince Achmed deserve the “revolutionary” claim they are often afforded. None of this really matters though; they are both stellar, all-time releases important less for their singular status (although rest assured, Achmed is indeed a singular film for other reasons) than for how sterling they are as art and storytelling even today. They are stupendous films, great when they were released, yes, but they would be as great still if they were released just today.
Thus, the assumed competition between the two is something of a moot point, although it is at least fun to compare two early masterpieces of the cinema. As it is, though, I find that Snow White comes up a tad wanting in this contest anyway. While White is a glorious film in some respects, its animation varies considerably depending upon the interest of its creators (which is why the villain and the sidekicks are animated with far more fidelity than the ostensible heroine, although even then the question of who exactly is the main character of Snow White is up for grabs, as it is in Sleeping Beauty).
Achmed, meanwhile, is a stupendous achievement from the most malleable details on up to the most grandiloquent of palettes. And what palettes! Achmed is one of the few films whose magic can be justifiably derived from simply looking at the frames as they exist in the singular (although there is more to the film than simply the look of individual pictures, so much of what makes it a unique achievement is tied to the purity of its look). Animated through a process borrowed from Javanese Wayang shadow puppets, where cutouts are silhouetted in front of blaring monochromatic backgrounds and manipulated in real-time for sharp contrast, the film bears a strikingly phosphorescent visage. Reiniger took this form and updated it for the cinematic arts by trading in real-time manipulation for frame-by-frame exploration more similar to what animation would soon become. The effect of this is uncommon and luminous: to at once zap the lifeblood of the real world into the animation as it moves with fluid grace and urgency and to inject a certain alien quality into the motion that appears just ever so much more stilted than other forms of animation. Thus, Achmed is both arcane/ mystic and modern/future-bound, a rare feat, and a perfect film that matches it time and time again.
Thus, the motion of the film, the movement from image to image is as important as the simple primacy of the lost-and-found images themselves. But even on their own, the images are among the most spellbinding in film history. They strike out with boldness and deep contrast, the pure black of the characters drawing attention both toward and away from the at once muted and brash backgrounds (achieved through a combination of tinting and intentionally under-nourished lighting around the edges). Even still, it’s a surprise that such a delightfully presentational, direct style of animation (literal animation too, being that it brings to life inanimate objects) could contain so many nuances below the surface. The way the backgrounds fade out and into the characters for one, sometimes leaving a black white space between the characters and the background to set the figures off into the foreground to highlight their status in the frame. More generally, the way the tinting conveys mood and emotion may top any live-action film from the period, especially when you consider how different depths of paper allow the backgrounds to reveal depth of field and changes in tone literally within the frame, something no other silent film managed to achieve with tinting alone.
Better still is the way all of it feels so composed and human, so alive and not entirely reliant on its technique (even when it is all really technique after all). In other words, the technique is brilliant on its own, but it is all subsumed into the legitimate narrative and character dynamics of this adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights. The way Reiniger coaxes performance out of the cardboard cutouts is a masterclass in animation, infusing them with an ungodly amount of detail and majesty and selling every emotional turn in her narrative (it’s a surprisingly complicated tale about a magician who is imprisoned for stealing away a Caliph’s daughter, tricking the Caliph’s son into riding a horse to faraway lands where he falls in love with a Princess, who the magician kidnaps once he escapes from prison, until the Prince joins together with the magician’s enemy, a Witch, along with Aladdin, to fight the magician and rescue both of his captives). A lot to ingest, huh? Thankfully, Reiniger’s style makes it flow and gel together with elegance and smoothness, allowing just enough time in each scene to sell the stakes without anything becoming too egotistical or lethargic. It is really sharp, propulsive storytelling with characters that feel rather than stare onwards. And if you can sell feeling with cardboard cutouts from a simple gesture of the head or arm, we really ought not excuse Hollywood’s feeble attempts for soulless animation these days any longer.
Gender issues aside (the plot really is just about the most traditional example of masculine-dominant adventure stories you might imagine, without anything in the way of a strong female character in the bunch), it’s a functionally perfect animated film. It is at once heart-rending and filled with momentum and momentous lifeblood (it is, after all, a live-action German silent fantasy done up in animation, and it bears all of the imaginative strengths of that particular genre, probably the most consistently imaginative in film history). It is positively lush, alert storytelling, dormant and restrained when it needs to be and striking and elastic when it must burst forth, but always the sum total of its already pristine elements and then some. It is a truly stunning film that insists so little, but still demands to be taken seriously as it transfers German Expressionism to an animated realm and proves that the aesthetic was always alive with potential to be poked at and explored through new avenues of filmmaking.