In 1895 the Lumiere brothers held one of the first public film screenings. Viewers simply couldn’t believe the moving magic before their eyes. Today fact, fiction and debate continue to swirl around cinema.
The question of who invented film is something of a question for the ages. Was it really the French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere, who on February 13, 1895 patented the cinematograph for showing moving images? Or should the brilliant American inventor Thomas Edison with his peephole viewer be credited? And what about German brothers Max and Emil Skladanowsky, who screened films in Berlin on their own movie projector around the same time as the famous French siblings? There are several other American and British cinema pioneers who also deserve a mention.
At the end of the day, it’s probably a matter of how the advent of film is defined: Can a technological development be considered the starting point or should it instead be the first time a group of people sat in front of a screen as a film danced before their eyes?
And let’s not forget about flip books, which in the mid-19th century used layered still images to create the illusion of movement when the viewer rapidly flipped through them. Could this, too, be considered the start of modern movies?
When diving into the early years of cinematography, one encounters a multitude of inventors and technicians, of places and laboratories in which development and experimentation took place, complete with plenty of trial and error. One thing remains certain: In the last decade of the 19th century photography was taking off, and from it, new as it was, film was born.
There were also others aside from the Lumiere brothers (pictured) who contributed to the start of the film industry, including Thomas Edison
The real inventors of cinema
The Lumiere brothers have a prominent position in most accounts on the history of cinema. They are customarily referred to as the inventors of film, despite the extensive preparatory work done by Thomas Edison and despite film screenings happening in other cities at nearly the same time as those of the brothers.
On December 28, 1895, the first commercial, public screening of the brothers’ films took place in the Grand Cafe in Paris. This evening is widely considered the start of moviegoing.
The Lumieres charged admission, and a few dozen visitors turned up to watch ten short films on the so-called cinematograph machine. The apparatus, which was both camera and projector, had been patented by the brothers a few months earlier. Visitors stared at the moving images in front of them, amazed the projections. They had never seen anything like it before.
Fact or fiction? Panic at a screening
Legend has it that the following year, the audience panicked at the screening of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, a short film made by the Lumiere brothers. The film shows a train entering the station of the town of La Ciotat, growing larger and larger as it hurtles towards the viewers. The camera perspective used makes it appear as if they would be run over.
The oft-told story posits that members of the audience, thinking the train was actually entering the cafe, jumped out of their seats and fled in panic. Whether fact or myth, it is nonetheless a beautiful story about people experiencing an important innovation for the first time.
The uncertain future of film
Today, as we remember the Lumiere brothers and their groundbreaking invention, the future of film, and in particular movie-going, provokes plenty of debate and uncertainty. In which direction will cinema develop? Will it even survive? What will happen to the standard feature film format and the shared experience of movie theater screenings in the face of streaming services like Netflix?
Only time will tell — and this leads back to the beginning of film history. It has always been an overwhelming medium, something spectacular and unbelievable that left people speechless above all else.
Cinema is meant to overwhelm
“The cinema owes virtually nothing to the scientific spirit,” wrote the influential French film critic Andre Bazin in his legendary book What is Cinema? (1967). The fathers of film are not scholars, but rather “monomaniacs, men driven by an impulse, do it-yourself men or at best ingenious industrialists.”
People still thirst for spectacles, surprises and miracles, so the film industry will likely continue to thrive.
Hollywood still excels at meeting these human demands, and while its blockbusters may not be high art and may not attract everyone, the industry is doing well. It still draws viewers to the theaters and achieved record profits in 2019. You can, of course, watch almost all the films later on your smartphone if you like; in today’s film industry, anything is possible.