Film History Essentials: Pferd und Reiter Springen über ein Hindernis (1888)

(English: Horse and Rider Jumping Over an Obstacle)

What it’s about:

A Prussian military officer, holding the reins only in his left hand and leaning back in the saddle, rides his horse towards an obstacle and vaults it. Then, a different rider, holding the reins in both hands and sitting upright, guides his horse in leaping both a ditch and a taller obstacle that are adjacent to each other.

Why it’s essential:

Germany had its own answer to Muybridge and Marey in the 1880s: Ottomar Anschütz. He shared much in common with the other two men. Like Muybridge, Anschütz used a battery of multiple cameras to photograph horses in motion, and like Marey, he was acclaimed for his images of birds in flight. However, Anschütz was quite formidable as both a photographer and an inventor, and the images he produced were of a notably high quality for his time, even as he constantly made improvements to his equipment.

The photographs of horses jumping over obstacles were taken as part of a scientific study on behalf of the Prussian War Ministry, in order to help improve their riders’ technique. Around the same time, he made his own version of the zoetrope, which he called a “wundertrommel” (or “wonder drum”). Where Muybridge’s priorities were artistic and in some senses educational, and Marey’s were very strictly scientific, Anschütz had an interest in entertainment. Chronophotography could be useful (and he put it to useful purposes), but he also saw that it was something people would be interested in simply seeing for its own sake.

In 1887, he completed his “schnellseher” (“quick viewer”), which was called the “electrotachyscope” by the English-speaking world. This device created the illusion of moving images through the use of a large spinning disc, and could be watched by several people at a time, though the animations it produced all probably lasted less than 3 seconds before looping. Anschütz’s device used an intermittent light source to create its illusion of movement, which allowed him to use photographs at a time when Muybridge was constrained to using drawn silhouettes of his photographs when giving lectures. This may have eventually inspired Thomas Edison’s use of the same technique for his kinetoscope. Edison probably saw the electrotachyscope in action when he visited the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, though he may have seen it even earlier, as it was demonstrated in New York some time before.

By early 1890, Anschütz had designed a coin-operated version of his device that could be viewed through a peephole. Several dozen were soon installed around the world, making it a possible source of inspiration for Edison’s use of the peephole format for film exhibition a few years later. There was an “electrotachyscope automat” in New York over two years before the first kinetoscope parlor opened. Furthermore, film historian Deac Rossell has claimed that several of the early kinetoscope films were essentially remakes of Anschütz’s work, including both The Barbershop and Record of a Sneeze, and that he may have also inspired films by the likes of the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès.

In 1894, Anschütz developed and patented a projecting electrotachyscope, and on November 25, in Berlin, he showed the first-ever projection of a motion picture in the world. Beginning the following February, he began a regular program of the first commercial screenings of motion pictures. Within less than a decade, Anschütz had created the first device that could exhibit motion pictures, then modified it to create the first commercial device for motion picture viewing, and then modified it again to display the first projected motion pictures for an audience.

However, all of these devices used photographs on spinning discs, not on strips of film. This is likely why he is so little-known today; not only because his spinning discs were a technological dead-end, but because he apparently refused to work with celluloid film. In March 1895, the first Edison kinetoscope parlor opened in Berlin, and at the end of that month, Anschütz’s projecting electrotachyscope show closed, never to re-open. He abruptly abandoned the field of motion pictures, turning instead to continuing his innovations in regular photography.

Was it a coincidence that Anschütz chose this moment to simply end several years of increasingly impressive technological advances that had seemed to leave the adherents of celluloid trailing in his wake? Perhaps, but as both an inventor and an entertainer, he must have seen that film offered possibilities that he couldn’t hope to match with spinning discs of photographic plates. Rossell states that he was “constitutionally unable” to work with film at a time when the images it produced were so inferior to his own. His refusal to compromise on quality seems to have led him to gracefully bow out of the future of motion pictures. Truthfully, his is a much happier ending than those experienced by many who either continued to try and fail to adapt their suddenly obsolete motion picture entertainments to the changing times, or who never stopped chasing the faded glories of early successes that were all too brief.

Why you should see it:

The version below also includes three additional motion pictures by Anschütz in addition to the two of horses leaping obstacles. All three are of men performing some kind of athletic action. The first two may be the same man, and are particularly reminiscent of Muybridge’s work. I think all five of these examples of Anschütz’s work bear out the claim that he was producing higher quality pictures than anyone else in the mid- to late-1880s. There is both a smoothness to the motion and a level of detail that is unmatched by anything else I’ve seen. Notice the way you can see the second horse kicking up fountains of dirt as it leaps. I love that. And the way the clip goes from full speed to slow-motion really shows off the beauty that Anschütz captured. It’s truly magnificent.


~ by Jared on January 10, 2023.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: