Film History Essentials: Démolition d’un Mur (1896)

(English: Demolition of a Wall)

What it’s about:

Auguste Lumière supervises workers at the Lumière factory as they knock down and begin clearing away a crumbling brick wall. He then supervises as they use the same tools to repair the wall and lift it back into place.

Why it’s essential:

The idea of the “actuality” genre seems like the simplest kind of film to conceive of and produce. Many early filmmakers seem to have genuinely just walked their camera to the nearest place where people were doing something, even if that something was just walking down the street, and filmed it. But there is truly something of an art to choosing an interesting subject, which may be why Démolition d’un Mur remains one of the Lumière brothers’ best-known early films. They actually made two different versions of it. This one is the second, and more well-known, of the two.

You can find a lot of casual criticism, much if not all of it presumably tongue-in-cheek, on the film’s deep symbolism (the crumbling wall as metaphor for [insert theme here]), and some similar commentary on filmic elements like the way it “builds suspense.” And there’s a little something to the latter, particularly at the moment when the wall sways and seems like it really could potentially topple either way. Ultimately, though, the reason the film still works is that it’s of something that, even now, you would probably actually stop to watch if you were just walking by. That’s its secret, at least in part.

The other part happens halfway through, at about the point when, if you were physically present, you would probably decide you’d seen enough and continue on walking towards your destination. Instead, suddenly, a very strange thing happens. The two men who have just begun to cross the frame from left to right suddenly reverse direction and walk backward out of frame, while the picks wielded by the three workmen to tear chunks away from the fallen wall instead begin to put it back together. Then, just at the moment when the dust cloud seems to be at its thickest, it suddenly contracts into the fallen wall, which leaps back into its original position as the workmen carefully help it settle, fully upright once more. The man with the jackscrew makes sure it’s stable, while the men with the picks begin shoring it up again on the opposite side.

Films shown with early, manually-operated projectors were open to a certain amount of interpretation by the projectionists, who were often the most reliant on the audience’s reaction to a film in order to turn a profit. They could (much like Reynaud with his Théâtre Optique) decide to speed up or slow down the action based on how they ran the film. They could even, as was commonly done with this film, cause time to move backward.

It could be advantageous to do this, not only to spice up some films that might need a little something extra, but also to prolong the program just a bit when you were short on new films and all the ones you had were about 45 seconds long. There are also numerous reports from these early programs of audiences demanding to see a particular film rerun multiple times in a row. An encore is certainly not unheard of in a stage performance, and many art forms have the ability to freeze time in its tracks. But only film can actually force time to turn around and run the other way.

Why you should see it:

It is unironically enjoyable to watch how the workers go about taking down this wall, but it’s also undeniably fascinating to watch everything happen in reverse. It’s a very old movie trick, but (given the right subject) it still just works. Sometimes, cinematic pleasures are very simple ones.


~ by Jared on February 19, 2023.

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