Silent Film – The Day Cinema Was Born

The scenery was always the same: no matter where Auguste and Louis Lumière appeared with their cinematograph, their mouths were wide open. Because they showed something that people had never seen before: running photographs! Not a single picture to hang on the wall. But one that moved on the wall, accompanied by the fidgeting and purring of the film projector, through which a transparent ribbon ran past a lamp and fooled the eye into a trick, namely: that the image it saw was actually moving. The fact that it was actually a question of individual photo positives that were thrown on the canvas could not be grasped by the human eye, it was and is too sluggish for that.

The illusion was perfect when the Lumière brothers first presented their invention to the world on December 28, 1895 in the premises of the Paris Grand Café on Boulevard des Capucines (today’s Hotel Scribe) not far from the opera. It was the first public film screening in front of a paying audience in which the Lumières showed ten short films they had made themselves, including “Workers Leaving the Lumière Works”. Not there was – contrary to the claims of many contemporaries – her legendary short film “The Arrival of a Train at the Station in La Ciotat”, because it was only made in January 1896. You can see a train entering the said station – diagonally towards the audience; The first spectators are said to have panicked when the train moved closer and closer to the camera. Many are said to have jumped up and ran for their lives because they believed the train was about to pull out of the screen.

Traveling cinema projectors like these from 1899 were used to go on tour with the moving images. – © Filmarchiv Austria

Impressively real

However, according to the latest findings, these are fairy tales that are often told, which only strengthened the advertising effect for the new type of film production. But yes: the medium itself was impressive because it was so real. Just a running photograph. The Lumières soon went on a European tour with their new fairground attraction. On March 1, 1896, a demonstration in Brussels was the first outside of Paris. Vienna, the KuK metropolis, was almost hungry for moving pictures: on March 20, 1896, the cinematographic big bang in Austria occurred in a lecture hall of the kk graphic teaching and research institute at Westbahnstraße 25. Members of the Photographic Society and journalists witness the first film showing.

The cinema had finally arrived in Austria (-Hungary), and the 125th anniversary of this event is the occasion for the Filmarchiv Austria to look back at the beginnings of moving images with the online show “125 Years of Cinema”, of course from an Austrian perspective , but with a crying eye: We would have loved to see this anniversary on the real screen of the Vienna Metrokino, which is played by the film archive, but the pandemic made this impossible. A strange contradiction in celebrating cinema in a “digitorial”. But the online show is also an instrument for presenting the passion for cinema in a multimedia way, and the Filmarchiv Austria has always succeeded in doing this in an astonishingly vivid manner in its numerous shows that it has held since the beginning of the Corona crisis.

Many technical innovations were made around 1896. In January Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen shows the “X-rays” he named. At the beginning of March, Antoine Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity while developing photo plates. In June Guglielmo Marconi laid the foundation stone for radio with his apparatus for transmitting electrical impulses.

The Viennese love the cinema

And there is also something revolutionary going on in terms of film: While the Lumière brothers made rather harmless films like “L ?? enfant au ballon”, in which a child lets his balloon rise into the sky, it comes in the 25-second short film “The Kiss” by the American William Heise for the first kiss in film history.

Back then, in March 1896, Vienna was considered the European capital of photography, along with Paris. That is why the location of the premiere in the “Graphische” was not chosen by chance. They were researching all kinds of reproduction techniques here. The director of the institute, Josef Maria Eder, had personally endeavored to get this special cinema premiere and invited the Lumière company to Vienna. The presentation was organized by Eugène Dupont, one of the most important employees of the Lumière brothers. And the train in question, which arrives at La Ciotat station, was also on the Vienna program. “It’s starting to get scary,” noted the “Illustrirte Wiener Extrablatt” on the occasion of the Vienna premiere. “We emphasize that it is not dead figures that you see, but moving figures with all their kinds and naughtiness, and not one or two figures, but hundreds at a time.”

After the successful premiere, the cinematograph moves to the first floor of Kärntner Strasse 45 / Krugerstrasse 2 within Vienna, where the first public film screening in Austria took place on March 20, 1896. Initially, of course, the French films of the Lumières were on the program, such as “Pageant in Nice”, “The watered gardener” or “Arrival of a steamship in Lyon”. Later, however, the sales-ready Lumières switched to making local films in order to show the audience their own city in realistic images. That literally increased the interest in the new medium.

From March 27, 1896, the cinema in Krugerstraße became a fixed facility, where you could experience the living photographs daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., for 50 Kreuzer admission. The Emperor also stopped by on April 17th, when he arrived at noon and was received there by Dupont. Placed on an armchair, Franz Joseph watched the performance spellbound.

“C ?? est magnifique”

“The emperor was particularly praiseworthy about the sea and the train and you could hear the emperor, turning to Mr. Dupont, repeatedly exclaiming: ?? Ah, c ?? est magnifique! ??”, wrote the “Wiener Mondays-Post” ” back then. The next day the emperor was shown again film material in the Hofburg, including snippets shot in Vienna such as “Der Stephansdom”, “Der Stadtpark”, “Der Türkenschanzpark” or “Ausfahrt der Wiener Fiaker”. The monarch is said to have been enthusiastic and asked for the projection to be repeated twice, although the ceremony actually forbade meeting the emperor in a completely darkened room.

The cinema, however, stayed in Vienna: soon they were playing at a second location on the corner of Annagasse. Where one of the first Austrian films was set, which captured street life in front of the cinema. The film examples from 1896 can all be seen at the digital show of the film archive. Even more: the early world of cinema can be recreated in five online channels, for example the world of the Lumière brothers, the films of the early cinema fanatic Georges Méliès, but also the pioneers of Viennese film erotic. What many films of the time have in common is their blunt immediacy: from the very beginning, the medium of film has distinguished itself as the most honest and undisguised of all the arts; it loved the moment, spontaneity and documenting. Right from the start, it also included the archival moment that goes beyond staging and art and captures life itself.

The cinema became a mass phenomenon, with countless showmen at the annual fairs, later with the first cinemas, which soon populated the metropolises by the hundreds. The stream of images is unbroken to this day, even if it is now taking place in the home theater for the time being. But every film fan, as this online show clearly shows, must truly deeply mourn the fact that he was not there when the workers of the Lumière works left their factory for the first time. Or the train pulled in. How does it feel to see something that no one has ever seen before? It has to be the moment when you believe in magic.

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