La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (1895) Director: Louis Lumiere
Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory was directed and produced by the Lumiere Brothers, Louis and Auguste in 1895. In French it was called “La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon,” though the film has been called a wide variety of different names in both English and in French.
This short film lasts just under two minutes (46 seconds in the earliest 35mm version) and it features 100 factory workers at the Lumière factory in Lyon-Montplaisir as they end their work day and quietly file out the front doors. All workers exit the factory between two gates and leave the frame on both sides. Note: several different versions of this film exist, because it was filmed during different seasons and with different objects in the foreground, such as a horse-drawn carriage. Today, this building still stands in Lyon but it has since become the Lumière Institute, a museum dedicated to the preservation of French cinema.
The brothers were sons of a French portrait painter, and they were excited about then-recent advances in photography, particularly Thomas Edison’s inventions. They were enamored with the Kinetoscope, an Edison invention, despite its clunky and enormous size. Together the brothers improved upon it with their own Cinematograph, an invention that initially did not have a proper name, but which they used to offer screenings of short films for the general public. From the French word “Cinematograph,” we derive the word “cinema.” The brothers viewed the medium of film as an odd novelty, an extension of their father’s small and teetering photography studio in Lyon. They continued to develop unique photography and novelty colored films until their deaths in the mid-20th century.
The first private screening of the Cinematograph occurred on March 22nd, in 1895 at 44 Rue de Rennes in Paris. The screening generated considerable excitement, the local press was infatuated with the prospect of the new machine. Later, the Lumière Brothers presented their first fully public screening on the 28th of December at the Grand Cafe located on Paris’s Boulevard de Capuchines. The films shown were:
La Sortie de usines Lumière (1895)
La Voltige (1895)
La Peche aux poissons rouges (1895)
La Debarquement du congres de photographie a Lyons (1895)
Les Forgerons (1895)
L’ Arroseur arrose (1895)
Repas de bebe (1895)
Place des Cordeliers a Lyon (1895)
La Mer (1895)
Audiences were immediately enamored with this new invention, when it was first shown they demanded a replay of the workers leaving the Lumière factory. Notably, the most compelling film of the group featured humans in motion –people like watching other people in movies.
It’s important to note that the subject matter of the film concerns ordinary workers of all stripes – a theme which the history of cinema will return to again and again, such as in Chaplin’s Modern Times or in Eisenstein’s Strike. However, later films rarely if ever turn the camera back onto their own workers –staff and crew and so on. The workers often remain silent parties to the final cinematic project. Although the Lumière Brothers did not intend for their first film to be political, it nevertheless set a tone for the future of cinema with one single camera at eye-level on the street, focusing on industrial workers ending their workday. Naturally, Marxist interpreters of the film have offered numerous interpretations regarding the plight of the proletariat and exploitation and so on, however I am generally not as interested in these revisionist interpretations. In the film, the factory serves as a kind of container filled with people, and it does not stop until it is emptied, a pleasing motion for the mind’s eye. This ability to capture the desires of the audience’s mind is what becomes the goal of all later story film-making, particularly in Hollywood, which rarely focuses on how the film was made, but rather simply in capturing the faith of its audience –suspending viewers’ disbelief for a period of time. With the development of moving pictures, cinema begins as a gratifying spectacle.
This film has endured simply because of its extreme importance to the history of cinema in a number of ways. Otherwise, the title explains the entirety of the single shot. It is primarily important for its technological innovation, and its precedent-setting status in the story of movie-making. It was actually preceded by the Roundhay Garden Scene, another short film by Louis Le Prince in 1888. Le Prince was an English inventor who shot some of the earliest known footage at his home in Leeds, but he mysteriously disappeared on a train in 1890 and was never heard from again. Conspiracies abound as to his disappearance, including a story about Thomas Edison killing him. His family later sued Edison, believing Le Prince was the original inventor of motion pictures, though the law and the tidal wave of the changing times have generally sided with Edison, even though other early movie-makers like Lumière Brothers were an undeniable force in the foundation of early cinema.