In Praise of Silhouettes
The Adventures of Prince Achmed / Limbo
by Víctor Navarro Remesal
If what was projected inside Plato’s cave was somewhat similar to Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette cinema, it’s no surprise that its inhabitants were not in a hurry to get out of there: they had in front of them much more than mere twisted reflections of the Truth. Shadows and fantasy (two inseparable questions) are usually accused of escapism and of trying to distract us from what is really important. This is a clumsy conclusion: shadows require from us an effort in order to give them shape and fit them into what is known; and if reality seems to offer any answers, fantasy asks us questions. Shadows, despite the bad reputation the Greek philosopher gave them, suggest calm, sharpen our vision and help us go beyond the obvious. Turn Plato upside down: sometimes, the Truth is better grasped through its twisted reflections.
We should rethink our relationship with shadows, starting with language: we use it as a synonym of manipulation and trick (the “shadow government”), of evil presence ready to attack us or as a warning of a catastrophe (shadows are always “hovering”) or of that interior reality we are too afraid to unveil (our “dark side”, our “lights and shadows”). In English, the Middle Ages are known as well as the “Dark Ages” and the Renaissance as “Enlightenment”. Even the Zen term “satori”, meaning “understanding”, is usually translated as “illumination”. Our ethics are a history of light against shadows, and you know what each side means.
This obsession with the luminous takes us to a descriptive and analytical idea of beauty. The beautiful is what can be seen properly. Philosopher Charles Batteux, who in 1746 proposed a first theory on this in his treatise Les beaux arts réduits à un même principe, wrote that art is all that brings us pleasure and imitates life. Again, Plato and his idea of Truth. From there to Naturalism, to verisimilitude, to what doesn’t hide anything from us: it’s no wonder that later on we were tempted by what Bazin described as the myth of Total Cinema, “the complete and total representation of a reality”.
Thus, when Lotte Reiniger premiered in 1926 The Adventures of Prince Achmed, she was opposing, whether intentionally or not, a whole ethical and aesthetic tradition. The film takes us to a switched off world, described through minimal elements, voluntarily flat, in which the relationships between figures and background are everything and movement is refined to the minimum expression. Not to mention reality. It’s the oldest animation feature film that has been preserved, but it’s fascinating because of the safety of its codes: its silhouettes are not shadows of anything, but autonomous creatures, free abstractions, and its liquid backgrounds and delirious dances could be considered forerunners of psychedelia. In a few years, Reiniger invented and perfected her own language. It’s said that her colleague Walter Ruttmann, director of Berlin – Die Symphonie der Großstadt, was annoyed by the fact that Achmed had nothing to do with the difficult situation Germany was immersed in at the time. This is a typical mistake when attacking escapism: not understanding anything beyond immediate reality. Reiniger aspired to something higher, to represent humanity itself. It is no coincidence that she always chose folk stories and fairy tales, universal poetic landmarks that help us transcend any given time and context.
Nobody dared criticising Danish studio Playdead when in 2010 (eighty-four years after Achmed) it published what could be deemed as the greatest “silhouette videogame”: Limbo. First, of course, because the discredit of escapism is already a common accusation for this medium, but also because it continued the path initiated by Reiniger and the reference at this point granted it some legitimacy. To the success the director had in her heyday (she shot dozens of short and medium-length films up to the seventies) we should add the fact that our century had turned her into a cult author. What also helped was that the photographic realism of the great playable super productions (a sort of myth of the Total Videogame) had already atrophied our taste. Look at the flesh puppets in Heavy Rain, also from 2010, and tell me whether they look out-dated already or not. Before this derailed imitation of life, the silhouettes and monochromes of Limbo teach expressive muscle with the same firmness as Reiniger’s.
Limbo, a children’s fantasy that mixes Reiniger with German Expressionism and Edward Gorey’s sense of the macabre, has yet another advantage to be included in the silhouette school: in videogames, flat scenarios, the relationships between figure and background, and precise movements were, for years, a must. Pac-Man, the Space Invaders and all the Atari 2600 creatures are nothing more than symbol-silhouettes (these pixels are a cowboy, these two dots, a car) and Mario and Sonic go over lots of bi-dimensional worlds such as the ones portrayed in Achmed. Silhouettes found a perfect home in videogames and they deconstruct them: Achmed proposed a possible future when animation films were being invented, and Limbo allowed videogames a re-reading of their past. As Óliver Pérez Latorre says in his book El arte del entretenimiento, its minimalism makes it at the same time a unique game and “all games at once”.
Achmed and Limbo are unique works that try to discover the essence of films and of videogames, of storytelling and playing, using the ambiguity of shadows. That’s why I like to analyse them using Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. In his essay, the Japanese writer confronted our Kantian tradition (sublime, luminous, all Stendhal syndrome and “Lolita, light of my life”) with Japanese sensitivity: while our lights look for progress, exuberance and complete information, Japanese art values what’s unfinished, changing, modest and intimate. Even though Reiniger’s arabesques and Limbo‘s darkness separate them a bit from this ideal, I do see in these two works an Eastern (not Orientalist) way of looking. Like Tanizaki’s praise, they move us to accept what’s incomplete. Like Chinese shadows theatre or South-East Asian Wayang, they ask us to reduce things and actions to their minimum expression. Like Chinese painting, in which a trace of ink discovers something in the midst of a white canvas, we are asked to understand emptiness. They tell us that a total representation is impossible because nothing is Total… and that is a good thing.
Silhouette audio-visuals are, thus, Eastern shadows and not Western darkness. Less a cave than a meditation room. They are not trying to teach us what the world out there is like or how to escape from it: they point towards something indescribable, the fantasies and worries that motivate us all. They point towards things that are as valid in 2015 or 2010 as in 1926. We’re told that light can reveal the shapes of things, but shadows reveal their real flavour. The shadows in Achmed and in Limbo are an invitation to withdraw, even if it’s only for a while, from brightness and hyper real textures. They free us from overcrowded stuff to calmly observe the fragile and imperfect (and hence, beautiful and touching) nature of things. If it’s worth praising silhouettes at all, it’s because of this: thanks to them we see what disappears when we turn the lights on.