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The Moving Image 4.1 (2004) 89-118

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Lumière's Arrival of the Train

Cinema's Founding Myth

[End Page 89]
Today, we cannot comprehend the terror that gripped the 1895 audience facing the Lumière brothers' arriving train—this first film with which they gave birth to documentary film.1

Louis Lumière's film Arrival of the Train shows, in only fifty seconds, an everyday occurrence, a familiar experience for spectators: a train pulls into a station, the passengers go back and forth on the platform. Despite its brevity and the banality of its subject matter, this film has attained fame, entering film history as an icon of the medium's origins. Just how important the film had become in constructing the founding myth of cinema's birth became clear during the centenary of cinema, which provided ample opportunity to recall the film. In Germany, as well as in other countries, numerous television and press reports attested to cinema's undiminished vitality, using this film as evidence: already pronounced dead several times, cinema was said to be capable of resisting even new electronic media by asserting its peculiar power to fascinate the senses and to appeal to audiences. In this context, Lumière's cinematographic locomotive and its startling effect is mentioned repeatedly as an illuminating example from the first days of cinema. Thus, Hellmuth Karasek writes in Der Spiegel:

One short film had a particularly lasting impact; yes, it caused fear, terror, even panic....It was the film L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de la Ciotat (Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat Station)....Although the cinematographic train was dashing toward the crowded audience in flickering black and white (not in natural colors and natural dimensions), and although the only sound accompanying it was the monotonous clatter of the projector's sprockets engaging into the film's perforation, the spectators felt physically threatened and panicked.2

Even the German Railway's customer magazine picks up the gag, visually embellishing the supposedly panicky reaction: "The spectators ran out of the hall in terror because the locomotive headed right for them. They feared that it could plunge off the screen and onto them."3 The Munich Abendzeitung purportedly knew that "at the time, people, appalled by Arrival of the Train, were said to have leaped from their chairs."4

These journalistic claims are of course backed up by the standard works of film history. In Gregor and Patalas we can read that "according to handed-down knowledge, the locomotive terrified the audience."5 In connection with the menacing effect of Nosferatu, Lotte Eisner recalls that "the spectators in the Grand Café involuntarily threw [End Page 90] themselves back in their seats in fright, because Lumière's giant locomotive pulling into the station seemingly ran toward them."6 Georges Sadoul, in his French classic of film history, writes: "In L'Arrivée d'un train, the locomotive, coming from the background of the screen, rushed toward the spectators, who jumped up in shock, as they feared getting run over."7

It is beside the point that these standard works were written thirty to forty years ago. The audience's terror in view of the arriving train is still passed on as a proven fact by film historians today. Bernard Chardère laconically notes, "The locomotive frightened the spectators."8 In the German edition of Emmanuelle Toulet's Birth of the Motion Picture, one can read under the heading "Beginning with Terror": "The amazement at seeing windswept trees and stormy seas is followed by naked horror when the train approaching the station of La Ciotat appears to move toward them."9 Noël Burch also asserts that in 1896 the spectators "jumped up from their chairs in shock."10 Finally, Jean-Jacques Meusy simply assumes that these audience reactions are known and presents Arrival of the Train as the spectacular beginning of the medium's affective power: "The overwhelming realism of this film is proof of the complete identification of...


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