30. Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed

Abenteuer.pngJuly 1926
Directed by Lotte Reiniger

According to Andre Bazin in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, photography is a medium whose magic is conjured by the camera’s ability to turn an object of our affection into an image by a mechanical process, as if the very hand of God has saved our beloved from annihilation by capturing her in permanent and holy form. What the Egyptians did with mummies in tombs, the photographer does with photosensitive film.

The cinema director takes these holy images and sets them into motion.

But now we have arrived at a movie that does not conform to this holy Bazinian sense. While this movie is a set of moving photographs, these are photographs of drawings – objects fashioned by a human hand that represent imagined things.

If we don’t think about the fundamental shift here, it’s because animation has now come to define the essential features of cinema today.  In its most immediate form, the cinema exists today as Netflix, a continuous stream of moving images which are for the most part not depictions of real events from the past, but pictures painted on to the screen. Computer-generated imagery has replaced Bazinian photography.

By 1926, animation had been used not just for making primitive cartoons, but also for making avant-garde films, shown in the context of modern art exhibitions. In the days when it wasn’t obvious that cinema would be used to make narratives out of moving photographs, these were both significant genres. Avant-garde cinema, one could say, was the expression of the various paths abandoned when cinema chose the Birth of a Nation as its model.

To my eyes, the most fascinating avant-garde filmmaker of the 1920’s is Walter Ruttmann, who composed a series of Lichtspiel films, where tinted shapes and pattern wash over the screen in dynamic movements of color and energy. The pleasure of these movies is in seeing the actual film – the actual colored light, as if watching an abstract painting where the colors can’t stop swirling and jutting about. As the Lichtspiel series progresses, the shading becomes more sophisticated – the colors gradually change, and the colors begin to flash in visual rhythms. The shapes that form now develop a symbolic power in addition to their rhythmic geometry. There is no human narrative for the brain to interpret, the movie is strictly for the eye to experience the pleasure of looking. To watch the Lichtspiel is to relearn how to look.

Ruttman was Lotte Reiniger’s principal collaborator on Achmed, and while he’s responsible for some of the most alluring visual effects – the hypnotic backgrounds – this is Reiniger’s film. I’ve written before on how women’s role in film history has not just been forgotten but deliberately erased. Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed has found a strange space in the intersection of children’s culture, folk culture, and avant-garde culture where a woman can direct a masterpiece, a film that depicts events that are not really happening, yet are still real images that we can see. The film made at this crossroads was so undeniably great that it could no longer be forgotten or written off, although it has been watched and discussed less than most of the neighboring movies of this story. Achmed does not fit easily into any category we could attempt to assign to it. Many of her innovations were lately credited to the cultural glutton Walt Disney, whose movies as of 1926 are not even worth talking about here. The glowing print that we have today seems to have been saved, not by happy accident, but by a magical charm of protection. It would be quite appropriate if after a calamitous 21st century sends us into a dark age, this were the only silent film to survive.


7. True Heart Susie

June 1, 1919
Paramount Artcraft
Directed by D.W. Griffith

If Broken Blossoms
is Griffith’s unsuccessful study of masculinity, True Heart Susie is a much more successful study of femininity. The previously passive Lilian Gish is now an active force, and the entire drama of the film is contained in the movements of her face. Griffith has by now retreated entirely from the world of politics and trains his eye only on the face of the folk. The “true heart” of the title refers to inner beauty (which the rural folk have), which is opposed to the “net of paint, powder and suggestive clothes”, (what the new women in cities have). There is a tension in this celebration of natural rural beauty by the bourgeois silver medium. We know the entire time that the beauty of the image is the result of artiface. We’re told this literally by the intertitles, but we continue to gaze at Gish’s face, and we believe that our heroine’s inner beauty and outer beauty are linked. They move together, more or less in unison.

She is a clever girl who is attracted to a dull boy. They flirt with each other. They walk together down the leafy road, tiny figures in the distance, dwarfed by the natural world around them. The dull boy can’t afford the college education he is totally unworthy of. Susie decides to sell her beloved cow Daisy to pay for his education (I presume the cow is the equivalent of the entire tuition). She speaks about her idea with her female guardian, who admits that because the money is Susie’s inheritance, she can do nothing to stop the obviously foolish decision.

The transaction is anonymous. The boy has no idea. He’s so stupid, he needs everything spelled out for him explicitly. Because as it turns out, all of the true ones, the rural ones, are easily outwitted. The urban people, with their superficial and untrue beauty, easily manipulate the boy. He falls in love with a woman, Bettina, who makes evil and false facial expressions only. But can we trust what we see? Can we trust the truth that lies in the beauty of Susie’s expressed face, or in the supposed “beauty” of Bettina’s?

It was 1919. The war had ended, but the anti-German Espionage Act and the Sedition Act were still law, put in place against the threat of Labor, which was more dangerous than any Kaiser. The state turned its massive anti-German espionage arm toward anti-Bolshevik espionage. Because the message was everywhere. Russia did it. Russia made it work. They pulled off the revolution. A victory was possible—it was right around the corner. Marxists, Leninists, Anarchists haunted every city.

In February, workers in Seattle held a General Strike. It lasted five days.

In April, mail bombs were delivered to John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Oliver Wendell Holmes, attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer, postmaster general Albert S. Burleson, and many others.

May Day celebrations were spectacular.

In the summer, there were riots in Charleston, DC, Chicago.

In September, the Boston Police went on strike, and there was a second bombing attack, this one on Wall Street and deadlier than the last.

In October, there was the Black Sox Scandal (not to my knowledge a communist or anarchist plot, but who knows? The winning team was, after all, the Cincinnati “Reds”).

The state countered with the Palmer Raids of November 7, second anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. All of these events are worth researching further. The war was over, but it was a scary year. To many people, it did appear that there were two separate Americas. Wartime xenophobia easily demobilized into simple anti-immigrant sentiment, and the chaos and terror in American cities were blamed squarely on the immigrant population.

Bettina, the evil wife and representative of urban chaos, stays out all night partying, and is locked out and caught in a storm. She gets pneumonia and dies (we must remember that the daring lifestyles of the new women, the flappers and others, were all performed in a time before antibiotics). Does she deserve to die? Probably. Susie has no hand in the punishment, even doing her best to help the poor libertine and cover for her. Susie doesn’t need to do anything, really, but this is no mere shrinking passivity. This is a determined allowing of reality. She surrenders to fate, and her actions are always deeply open and beautifully right. Her outer beauty, which likewise only performs the subtlest of facial actions, does indeed mirror her inner beauty, which is a profound stillness. The seeming futility of selling the cow can only be seen as a religious act. Not a perfect woman, or a perfect human, but a perfect soul.

In fact, of our first seven films, the 1910’s film canon, True Heart Susie is the second feminine movie (after Les Vampires), and I believe it is the best. It is, I suggest with trepidation, the best film yet made. But still limited. Cinema so far cannot combine the small-world family drama with the large-world political drama without going insane. The cinema of the 1910’s is our prehistory, which now comes to an end. The next entry will find us in a new decade and a new country. The modern world of steel and glass, relentlessly bright, fast, and crowded, will be increasingly hard to ignore.


The Griffith Project, Volume 10: Films Produced in 1919-1946. British Film Institute, 2006.