The song of the summer is “WAP.” The book of the summer is The Vanishing Half. And now we have the film of the summer. The studios may have withheld all their blockbusters because of the quarantine, but the Museum of Modern Art has stepped up. For the month of August, the museum is running its Film Vault Summer Camp — every Thursday, they’re making several highlights from their extensive film archives available online. And with its first edition, the Film Vault Summer Camp brought us this two-minute masterpiece:
Hell. Yes. What you are looking at is footage from the Schwebebahn (literally “floating/flying train/railway”) in Wuppertal, Germany, a cool-as-shit public transportation system, the oldest electric elevated railway in the world. This short was shot in 1902, when the train was brand-new, filmed on 68mm Mutoscope by a German Biograph company. (That 68mm is why it looks so crisp now that it’s been restored, as if it were filmed today.)
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Back then, cinema basically consisted of thinking “Hey, what if we made a movie about this everyday thing?” and then making a movie about that thing. It would be 30-seconds long and knock your deeply uncomfortable turn-of-the-century socks off. (“What if we kissed, but for a camera? Haha just kidding … unless?”) So when someone saw something as tight as a flying train, of course they were gonna make a film strip about it to share it with the world. You can learn more about the history behind this short from MoMA film specialist Ashley Swinnerton here:
Flying trains are quite possibly the platonic ideal of locomotion. You get everything great about trains (being able to go from one point to another without having to drive a car, ride a horse, ride someone piggyback, etc, plus being able to move about at your leisure) combined with everything great about planes (being high up, where birds live). And this is from a year before planes were even a thing!
This is, to me, as viscerally thrilling as any first-person video of a roller coaster. (I will neither confirm nor deny that I might make a few “Vroom vroom” noises while watching.) It’s a delightful slice of a specific time and place. Peep the moment when the train flies over a horse and cart. There was a time when modern technology overlapped with widespread horses and carts. That is wild.
The best part of the film unquestionably comes early on, when we get smacked with the rush of passing another train on your route. You see that other train approaching and know exactly what’s gonna happen. Perfect anticipation. Look! Here it comes!
And then WHOOSH.
Why don’t all trains operate like this? This is a million times better than subways. “Oh bloo bloo logisitics and costs for heavy construction in urban areas.” Silence! I want my suspension trains. “But in plenty of cities, some trains are elevated.” No! That is not the same thing and you know it. This baby isn’t just up high, it’s flying. Why can’t we have flying trains in the US? Actually, why can’t we have more trains in the US? Why can’t the trains we do have be more comfortable and efficient? Ah shit, I have to stop thinking about this or I’ll make myself sad. Possibly I have made you sad as well. Here, cheer yourself up by checking out this video, in which Denis Shiryaev took the short, scaled it up to 4K and 60fps, and colorized it. Obviously this is inaccurate (life did not exist in color until the late ’30s, and all universal physics operated at 30fps and 480 resolution until the new millennium), but it still looks very cool.
That train is, of course, still in operation, and you can check out any contemporary video of it to see how things have and haven’t changed in Wuppertal in the intervening century:
God damn, I love trains.