Film History Essentials: Passage d’un Tunnel en Chemin de Fer (1898)

(English: Passing Through a Railway Tunnel)

What it’s about:

The camera view, filmed from the front of a train, travels across a bridge and then enters a tunnel. Emerging into the light on the other side, the journey continues on to the station.

Why it’s essential:

Passage d’un Tunnel en Chemin de Fer is a sort of hybrid of two of the Lumières’ most iconic and important films: L’arrivée d’un Train à La Ciotat and Panorama du Grand Canal Pris d’un Bateau. The first famously features the arrival of a train at a station, filmed from the perspective of someone standing on the platform. The second helped invent the tracking shot by mounting a camera on a moving boat in the canals of Venice. Panoramas shot from a moving vehicle (boats, trains, carriages, etc.) quickly became a regular feature of the Lumière repertoire. But by the time they placed a camera operator on the front of a locomotive to film Passage d’un Tunnel in 1898, these sorts of shots had already become quite common in America.

Edison released some stationary films of trains passing by in 1896 that were effectively advertisements for particular rail lines, like The Empire State Express. However, purportedly drawing inspiration from Panorama du Grand Canal, William Heise and James White also made some films from a moving train during their trip to Niagara Falls in the summer of 1896. These, particularly their shots of the rushing rapids in Niagara Gorge, proved extremely popular. The company was soon filming similar views, mostly of natural features taken from the rear of a moving train.

Alexandre Promio, who had filmed the Venice canal view, also shot a film from a moving train as he was leaving Jerusalem in 1897 (Départ de Jérusalem en Chemin de Fer), and it was quite successful. That same year, the American Mutoscope Company put a cameraman on the front of the train for The Haverstraw Tunnel. This was the first of what became known as the “phantom ride” genre, so named for the illusion of traveling aboard an invisible transport, as the means of locomotion does not appear within the frame. Although these films began simply, they became increasingly sophisticated during the decade or so of their greatest popularity.

The first “phantom rides” generally consisted of short, single-take shots, filmed locally. Before long, however, cameras were filming journeys in more exotic locations, and were combining multiple shots to create longer sequences. In 1899, a British company filmed a 12-minute train ride from Dalmeny, a few miles west of Edinburgh, north across the Firth of Forth to Dunfermline, a journey noted for its picturesque beauty.

Several years later, the genre reached its logical apotheosis with “Hale’s Tours of the World.” These attractions featured screenings of phantom rides exhibited inside a fake railway car, and included sound effects and benches that moved. Film audiences began to lose interest in the genre by the end of the decade, but as an attraction, it formed the basis of the many 4D rides that exist in amusement parks today.

Why you should see it:

Passage d’un Tunnel, filmed near the Lumière hometown of Lyon, is a fairly typical example of early phantom ride films. It features a stretch of track that is rendered unique by the local geography. The Rhône passes right through Lyon on its 500-mile journey to the Mediterranean. Originating in Lake Geneva in Switzerland, it winds down through the Alps and across southern France. One of its tributaries, the Saône, flows into it in Lyon, as well, and a section of the city lies between the two rivers. The commune of Caluire-et-Cuire is on a hill just to the north of Lyon, also between the Saône and the Rhône, and the track that passes beneath it is a key connection on the Paris-to-Marseilles and Lyon-to-Geneva rail lines.

The film begins with a particularly striking shot crossing a metal truss bridge over the Saône. The way the light and shadow play across the surfaces creates a very unique visual texture that feels almost like the viewer is passing through some sort of portal. The train then immediately curves left to enter another portal: the Caluire Rail Tunnel. The shot is soon shrouded in darkness.

At this point, the camera operator paused filming, as the shot is only in darkness for some five seconds before the tunnel exit appears. There is also a brief flicker about halfway through the darkened portion of the film that likely marks this transition. The Caluire Rail Tunnel, which burrows under the hill on which Caluire-et-Cuire sits, is approximately 1.5 miles (2400 meters) long, and so would have taken well over a minute to traverse.

The light at the end of the tunnel appears suddenly as an indistinct blob that quickly grows to encompass the entire frame, a perfect mirror to how the darkness enveloped it moments before. Only after the train has fully emerged into the light does the scene resolve so that the track and its surroundings are once again visible. The ground slopes upward to either side, and the view passes through one more sort of “portal,” in the form of a bridge over the tracks, to emerge into the flat, open space surrounding the station. This series of naturally-occuring “frames” that each lead to a distinct new environment or “scene” makes this particular phantom ride stand out, showcasing the ways this genre prefigured the birth of temporal and spatial editing.

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~ by Jared on March 27, 2023.

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