In the early days of film, even the simplest of concepts was fresh territory. In this case, the Lumiere brothers showcase the denizens of Jerusalem waving farewell to a moving train. Cameras on a moving train? Oh my!
The Phantom Ride
Leaving Jerusalem by Railway (Départ de Jérusalem en chemin de fer) is an early example of what was called a “phantom ride.” A camera would be film the scenery from the train as it chugged along, thus taking the audience along for the trip.
As its title indicates, this film was shot in Jerusalem for the film company founded by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. The duo had just enjoyed a successful paid exhibition of their film projection technology at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in December of 1895 and they were eager to follow up that success with even more ambitious moving pictures. The exhibition had included slapstick comedy, as well as scenes of domesticity and labor. Next stop: a world tour.
Leaving Jerusalem by Railway was shot by Alexandre Promio, one of the world’s first documentary filmmakers. He was dispatched by the Lumières to capture “animated photographic views” from around the world in 1896 and Jerusalem was one of many cities on his itinerary. The picture runs less than a minute and is not long on plot: it is simply a camera shooting from the back of the train, capturing the diverse inhabitants of Jerusalem for posterity.
Jerusalem was under Ottoman rule at the time and would remain so until the First World War. The building blocks of the modern political status of the city were already falling in place with Jewish immigrants departing the “cleansing” practices of czarist Russia and the revival of Hebrew as a living language well under way. (Language nerds, if you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading up on this story of linguistic rebirth. There truly has never been anything like it. If we really want to go off-topic, let me recommend In the Land of Invented Languages, which compares the revival of Hebrew to the attempt launch Esperanto as a universal language. Good stuff!)
Obviously, its religious significance also made Jerusalem an attractive subject for the Lumieres and other filmmakers. If patrons would not part with money to see hand-tinted dancers or scenes of European life, they might come for a glimpse of the Holy Land.
(I suppose this is as good a time as any to mention that I have no interest in discussing the modern political climate of the Middle East. If you wish to have such a conversation, there are approximately seventeen million political blogs that can accommodate you.)
Leaving Jerusalem by Railway is sometimes listed as the first film to use a moving camera but there are other claimants for that title and, in any case, it’s always incredibly risky to deem anything to be “the first” when discussing early cinema history. So many films have been lost and documentation can be spotty at best. Films confidently named the first this and that have since been shown to be nothing of the kind.
This uncertainty does not stop people from leaping at the chance to name something the first. There seems to be an overwhelming temptation to declare anything that looks really old as the first SOMETHING, ANYTHING. It gets a little annoying and then I have to start clobbering people across the information superhighway. Please, for the sake of my sanity, do a little bit of research before throwing about “first!” Phrases like “one of the first” and “an early such-and-such” are our friends.
In any case, the little “I was first” badge is not really all that important here. Leaving Jerusalem by Railway may have been the first, fifth or twenty-seventh but it does succeed in dramatically illustrating the difference between film and the stage. While vignettes from popular plays, dancers and assorted vaudeville acts were popular subjects for the new moving picture technology, is was films like Leaving Jerusalem by Railway that demonstrated the true power of the movies.
Sure, it’s fun to see Annabelle’s butterfly dances and things of that sort but the camera chugging through the Jerusalem train platform is almost as good as being there. It replicates the feeling of a train ride, something that we are so used to today that we forget how exciting it must have been back in 1896. Or 1897. Or whatever. The point is, we are absorbed by a cinematic world even if that world only lasts a minute.
Leaving Jerusalem by Railway isn’t the only early train film (do check out The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, also from the Lumieres, and don’t believe the stories about it causing panic) and it may not even be the first anything but it’s a chance for viewers to put themselves into the shoes of 1890s moviegoers and experience the awe of this exciting, revolutionary new art.
Where can I see it?
Leaving Jerusalem by Railway is available on DVD as part of The Movies Begin box set, a delightful collection of films from the dawn of cinema and basically an early film education in a box.
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