Train Pulling into a Station


L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (‘The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station,’ known in the UK as ‘Train Pulling into a Station’) is an 1895 French short black-and-white silent documentary film directed and produced by filmmaking pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière. Contrary to myth, it was not shown at the Lumières’ first public film screening on December 28th, 1895 in Paris (the first public showing took place in January 1896). The train moving directly towards the camera was said to have terrified spectators at the first screening, a claim that has been called an urban legend.

This 50-second silent film shows the entry of a train pulled by a steam locomotive into a train station in the French coastal town of La Ciotat. Like most of the early Lumière films it consists of a single, unedited view illustrating an aspect of everyday life. There is no apparent intentional camera movement, and the film consists of one continuous real-time shot. This 50-second movie was filmed by means of the Cinématographe, an all-in-one camera, which also serves as a printer and film projector. As with all early Lumière movies, this film was made in a 35 mm format with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1.

The urban legend associated with the film is well known in the world of cinema. The story goes that when the film was first shown, the audience was so overwhelmed by the moving image of a life-sized train coming directly at them that people screamed and ran to the back of the room. Hellmuth Karasek in the German magazine ‘Der Spiegel’ wrote that the film ‘had a particularly lasting impact; yes, it caused fear, terror, even panic.’ However, some have doubted the veracity of this incident such as film scholar and historian Martin Loiperdinger in his essay, ‘Lumiere’s Arrival of the Train: Cinema’s Founding Myth.’ Whether or not it actually happened, the film undoubtedly astonished people in the audience who were unaccustomed to the amazingly realistic illusions created by moving pictures. The Lumière brothers clearly knew that the effect would be dramatic if they placed the camera on the platform very close to the arriving train. Another significant aspect of the film is that it illustrates the use of the long shot to establish the setting of the film, followed by a medium shot, and close-up. (As the camera is static for the entire film, the effect of these various ‘shots’ is affected by the movement of the subject alone.) The train arrives from a distant point and bears down on the viewer, finally crossing the lower edge of the screen.

What most film histories leave out is that the Lumière Brothers were trying to achieve a 3D image even prior to this first-ever public exhibition of motion pictures. Louis Lumière eventually re-shot ‘L’Arrivée d’un Train’ with a stereoscopic film camera and exhibited it (along with a series of other 3D shorts) at a 1935 meeting of the French Academy of Science. Given the contradictory accounts that plague early cinema and pre-cinema accounts, it’s plausible that early cinema historians conflated the audience reactions at these separate screenings of ‘L’Arrivée d’un Train.’ The intense audience reaction fits better with the latter exhibition, when the train apparently was actually coming out of the screen at the audience. But due to the fact that the 3D film never took off commercially as the conventional 2D version did, including such details would not make for a compelling myth.

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