For visitors to the Denver Art Museum‘s exhibition Monet: The Truth of Nature, it would be understandable to find oneself so caught up in the extraordinary display of 120 paintings by the undisputed godfather of Impressionism, Claude Monet, that one overlooks a short 51 second video being projected in the third gallery of the exhibition. This projection may be somewhat easy to pass by without being aware of its historical significance as an early film experiment by prominent filmmakers the Lumière Brothers. The placard information in this section of the exhibition tells visitors very little about the film, but I thought that it would both entertaining and informative to share with them more about the film’s history, its importance, and the context of its inclusion in the exhibition.
L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (English translation: The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) was filmed and directed by Louis Lumière, and produced by Auguste Lumière, collectively known as the Lumière Brothers. Shot in 1895, L’arrivée d’un train, as it is commonly referred, is one of the more famous short films of the early silent film era. It is frequently shown to film students, alongside other classics such as the 1902 Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) by Georges Méliès, and the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery by Edwin S. Porter. Trains in particular became synonymous with progress, action, and fast movement. Audiences flocked to films that featured trains because they took full advantage of the cinematic medium and its power to deliver scenes that felt real and exciting.
The Lumière Brothers were among the first filmmakers to truly appreciate the power, not only of the moving image, but of perspective in conjunction with motion. Many early films rely on imagery adopted from the visual arts prior to photographic experimentation. As such, they do not take advantage of perspective or depth, instead relying on two-dimensional representations of space. They appear like moving sketches or moving paintings. The Lumière Brothers wanted to change that, and they did change that, with their introduction of what we call Dutch Angles. By positioning their camera at an angle so that the movement doesn’t occur along vertical and horizontal trajectories, but at diagonal ones, they simultaneously utilized the full frame of the image while enabling a moving object to appear to grow larger as it became closer to the camera. The resultant effect cannot be captured in a drawing, painting, or photograph, even through the use of foreshortening. We see the train as its cars trail off into the distance, but more importantly, we see the engine pull those cars ever closer toward the camera until it passes the camera, coming right “through the screen“.
This in turn meant that the moving image of the train appears to move closer to the audience, which according to popular cinematic legend, caused an uproar during its first theatrical exhibition as audiences fled to the rear right side of the theatre for fear that the train would collide into the front of the auditorium seating. This urban legend, as it has been called by some, is still a hotly debated subject with some film historians insisting that it never occurred, while others say that it did occur, but also that it was the source of inspiration for later films which utilized similar techniques. More on the film’s impact later. The film appears tame and even commonplace today, as modern audiences aren’t often accustomed to a stationary camera and continuous cuts, but upon its original 1896 exhibition it was revolutionary and dynamic. This illustrates just how much cinema has evolved in a relatively short period of time.
La Ciotat Station was near the Lumière Brothers‘ Summer home in a bucolic part of southern France. Some of the women members of their family, wearing fanciful French country dresses, can be seen on the platform watching as the train approaches. The Parc du Mugel in La Ciotat is a botanical garden founded over two centuries ago. It features a lush tropical garden near its outlying beach replete with palm trees. La Ciotat was just one of many towns that saw a boom in day tourism with the advent and popularization of the train holiday. Middle class and upper class citizens of France began taking day trips to the countryside and to the coast to get away from the city. This newfound interest in the pastoral can be seen as a reaction to urbanization and industrialism, but also as a reflection of the burgeoning middle class in France, both of which would become a common theme in the arts of the mid 19th Century to the early 20th Century.
L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat premiered on January 25, 1896 and was so successful in European theatres that it would be shown in the United States beginning in March of 1896. There the film tapped into America’s national obsession with locomotives, which had become a symbol of the Industrial Era and of Westward Expansion, and it would go on to inspire many filmmakers working on the then emerging genre of the Western. In the aforementioned The Great Train Robbery, we see not only a train coming directly at the camera, but also at the film’s climax a bandit (portrayed by Justus D. Barnes) shooting his pistol point blank into the camera, and thus the audience. These two images owe themselves to the camerawork and cinematic language that the Lumières helped to create for early audiences and filmmakers.
Now, as to that urban legend, the film debuted in 1896, and according to stories passed down generation to generation, it caused a panic among its audience who feared that the train would crash through the screen and into the theatre’s auditorium. Film scholars and historians such as Hellmuth Karasek have perpetuated this story, writing that the film “had a particularly lasting impact; yes, it caused fear, terror, even panic.” Others, such as Martin Loiperdinger, dismiss this alleged incident as an urban legend, perhaps born of hyperbolic appraisal by contemporary critics or perhaps even as a retroactive mythologization of a real occurrence exaggerated to convey how audience expectations and appetites for spectacle have evolved. L’arrivée d’un train would eventually be re-shot by Louis Lumière in 1934, using stereoscopic film equipment in an early experiment to create a 3D film, and it may in fact have been audiences reacting to this version that caused the birth of the urban legend. Regardless of whether the incident did or didn’t occur, or when it did, there can be no mistaking that L’arrivée d’un train helped to establish a number of cinematic techniques that riveted audiences and have become integral to longstanding filmmaking traditions.
The version of the film seen in this gallery is the original shot in 1895 and exhibited in 1896. It has been meticulously restored by the Institut Lumière for the best video presentation possible. An earlier restoration, in which you can see more grain, the focus appears softer, and there are various artefacts (dirt and debris) present on the film can be viewed on Vimeo, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which has a copy of the film in their collection. The restored version can be seen below…
Monet: The Truth of Nature will be on view at the Denver Art Museum, its sole US location, from October 21, 2019 through February 2, 2020. After that it will be headed to the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany.
Lokomotive der Gefühle – (English trans: Train of Emotions) by Hellmuth Karasek (from an article in the German magazine Der Spiegel, 1994)
The Lumière Brothers and Cinema by Steve Parker (1995)
Notes on The Lumières’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat by Charles Musser (from a larger essay for The Movies Begin, 2002)
Lumiere’s Arrival of the Train: Cinema’s Founding Myth by Martin Loiperdinger (essay in The Moving Image, volume 4, issue #1, 2004)