“L’arrivée d’un train en gare de la Ciotat” (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station), is a film full of paradoxes. Often described as the first film in cinema history, it was in fact, not screened on the 28th of December, 1895, in Paris, (in the basement of a luxurious café in the Opera area), when the brothers Lumière showed their first works to an audience of 33 persons :)
Strangely, the two brothers preferred to show other films they’d just made, 10 in total, that were showing baths in the Mediterranean Sea, or some industrious places in Lyon, their birthplace.
So, why does “L‘arrivée. . .” have such a massive cult status?
Probably because the arrival of the cinema medium was as mesmerizing for people as the railroad industry. The ‘chemin de fer’ (the steel road, or a French phrase meaning ‘railroad’), and its fierce train, with all the steam of its powerful engines, allowing people to go from one place to the other, was a revolution. Watching people on a big screen was another.
Therefore, we can only assume, that in 1896, when “L’arrivée. . .” was finally shown, the viewers REALLY jumped from their seats, screamed, and were terrified. Why? Because an image was pointed directly at them, destroying the big screen to attain their eyes, and then, their hearts.
The directors had found the right angle to place their camera. The angle was not quite in front of the train, as both the camera and the cameraman would have been destroyed, but on the left. So, when the machine passed the people on the pier, the train followed its route, and disappeared from the screen. The brothers Lumière had just invented the ‘off screen’ dimension. Sometimes, things you don’t see are as powerful as the ones you see properly.
Strangely, concerns about whether the train will stop correctly or remain on the tracks and keep the people aboard safe, was NOT the suspense. The suspense for viewers was, where the train would stop, making “L’arrivée. . .” the first thriller, in fact, and its creators, the great-great-great grandfathers of scary movies.
In a way, its viewers and passengers became twins, like Louis and Auguste Lumière were brothers.
One should never forget the importance of the location of the film. It was not filmed in Paris, Lyon, or Bordeaux, big cities at the time, but in La Ciotat2, an average town (in terms of population) in a sunny southeast part of France. The fact that this French area is very hot, may have added to the stress of the situation. The heat of the train added to the temperature, and raised the state of fear, excitement, and even goosebumps.
The whole film, 48 seconds long, is made of a single shot because the editing process was not even invented at the time and gave us a sense of reality. Now, in the YouTube era, when we jump from one image to the other, “L’arrivée. . .” finds a new and true power.
1 Sometimes called “Entrée d’un train. . .,” which is not quite different, but gives a more pompous connotation.
2 La Ciotat is often called, the ‘berceau du cinéma’ (the cinema’s cradle), and every year, hosts an interesting and modern film festival.